School Prayer Then and Now

January 2, 2012

This piece was originally published on Connect for Kids (now SparkAction) in June 2000.  It was updated in January 2012.

In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a Texas high school's practice of broadcasting student-led prayer before football games "places the students who hold ... [minority religious] views at the mercy of the majority" (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe). Nothing prevents students from praying at any time, but the state—including public schools—cannot sponsor it.

The decision stirred emotion in three people—Ellery, Roger, and Donna Schempp—who as young students nearly 50 years ago, took on what they felt was the unconstitutional practice of Bible readings and prayers in their public school, and changed the landscape for all of us.

Morning Devotions: The Battle over School Prayer

In 1956, public schools in Abington, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, began each day with homeroom "Morning Devotions"--10 verses of the Bible, read without comment, followed by the Lord's Prayer. Then came the Pledge of Allegiance, roll call and school announcements.

Ellery Schempp, then a 16-year-old Abington High School junior, thought of the devotions mostly as a time for sleepy-eyed students to wake up slowly to the sounds piped over the P.A. School opened this way in many American public schools—at least 24 states permitted or required "homeroom devotionals."

In his classes, Ellery studied Jefferson and Paine's writings on the nature of government, and learned about Senator McCarthy's devastating crusade, that had ended a scant three years before. He wrote weekly essays for English teacher Alan Glatthorn about the issues of the time: civil rights, integration, freedom of speech. Take any opinion or position, Glatthorn urged them, just think it through and defend it well.

Glatthorn encouraged his students to meet outside of class to continue debates and discussions. So Ellery and about ten or twelve friends began meeting on Thursday nights at one or another's house, debating issues or talking about school, sports and other teen pursuits. One Thursday night, Morning Devotions came up. The boys and girls went back and forth, eventually agreeing that the Pennsylvania policy requiring Bible readings was probably a violation of the First Amendment's assertion that government may "make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

"A lot of them thought it was trivial, who cares," says Ellery. "I felt it was a little more important. So a few, maybe three or four of us compacted that we'd make a protest."

The enthusiasm of the others quickly waned; they grew worried that this would go on their college transcripts or affect their standing in school. "I didn't realize the depth of the emotion that was going to get stirred up," says Ellery. "In my 16-year-old mentality, I thought this was some sort of error that the adults had overlooked. If I showed them the error of their ways, they'd just make a correction. I had no idea it was going to be a court case, much less a Supreme Court case."

Morning Devotions are Broken

The day Ellery launched his protest began like every other. But instead of standing for the Lord's Prayer, Ellery—a smart, popular junior whom no teacher or school administrator considered a troublemaker—remained sitting, quietly reading the Koran at his desk.

"When it was finished, my teacher called to me," Ellery remembers. "He didn't ask what I was doing. I think he simply said, 'You're supposed to follow the rules.' And I remember my words: 'In good conscience I cannot do that any longer.' I was terribly, terribly nervous, nervous as a cat. I was barely 17 at the time."

When Ellery told his family what had happened, his parents encouraged him to write a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which eventually agreed to take the case.

Donna Schempp, who is five years younger than her brother Ellery, was a 7th grader when he made his protest. There was no loudspeaker system in the junior high, so teachers picked students to read Bible passages aloud to the class each morning.

"I loved it," Donna remembers. "At a little-kid level it was fun to have the chance to read the verses. I had no intellectual understanding because, although we were Unitarian, I wanted to be like everyone else and go to church with my friends. Let's face it, separation of church and state is a very intellectual concept, not a 12-year-old one."

Roger, two years older than Donna but in the same grade because of learning difficulties, was, he says, "a little surprised that Ellery would go to the trouble." But he decided to go along with it, and became "sort of the historian," keeping a notebook of news clippings and articles on the case.

Against a "Tyranny of Majority"

Because the Schempp's case hinged on a constitutional issue, Ellery says, there was a shortcut that allowed it to go before a panel of three Federal District Court judges, with the ACLU representing the Schempps. After the judges ruled 3-0 in the Schempp's favor, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the Morning Devotions policy (for the first time since it passed in 1896), allowing students to excuse themselves and go sit in the hallway. The legislature didn't address the "establishment clause" whether the public school was making policy about the establishment of a particular religion.

Back before the panel again, the school lost its second case, despite the new policy of letting students excuse themselves. The judges ruled that the legislature hadn't addressed the school's mandated Christian practices. And they ruled that asking students to stand up and leave the room was too close to a punishment, placing an unacceptable burden on a family's religious rights and violating the First Amendment. The school district appealed, and the case went directly to the Supreme Court.

The school's reaction to losing surprised even Ellery, then a senior in high school. The principal, Eugene Stuhl, contacted the colleges and universities that accepted him and urged them not to let Ellery enroll. The Tufts University admissions officer in charge of his application later told Ellery that Principal Stuhl "wrote a negative reference, saying that I was immature and unfit for college and [admitting me] would be a bad decision," Ellery says. Nevertheless, he was accepted.

"Everyone was always talking about the case destroying the reputation of the school," Ellery remembers. "I couldn't believe that, I was confident that there were important values at stake, a sense of fairness. The McCarthy era convinced me that an attempt to intimidate and suppress was bad for our country, and I saw the Bible readings as an attempt to suppress other religions and differences of opinion—not so much by law, but by social pressure."

Making Headlines

From the beginning, the case was difficult for Donna. When it first went to court, Donna remembers being asked to the stand. "The lawyer asked why I felt the Bible readings were wrong," she says. "I was unsure how to answer, so I said I had some Jewish friends who find this offensive. The attorney objected immediately, saying that it was hearsay. I felt like I'd done it wrong, and maybe lost us the case."

As the case moved forward, the reaction to it grew heated. Donna remembers passing her house on the school bus and kids yelling, "We're passing the Commie camp" or the devil's house. "Parents told kids not to talk to me," Donna says. Roger, who was beaten up at least once during the course of the trials, says he was treated for a stuttering problem, that he thinks "might have been from the harassment and bugging from the kids."

Their parents wrote a one-page statement about religious freedom and the reasons behind the suit. But the hand-out could not shield Donna from social stigma. "I was trying to fit in," she remembers. "Suddenly my name and being against God are what comes up, and the sheet didn't help."

To carve out her own identity, Donna threw herself into her family's Unitarian Church. Unitarianism holds that there are many paths to truth, and encourages the study of and respect for all religions. "I created an alternate reality," Donna says of her involvement with the Youth Group at her church. "I created a parallel universe where I had support, where I didn't have to talk about the case. It met a real spiritual and social need for me."

While Donna was trying to downplay her role in the case, the rest of the country was catching wind of what was happening in the small Pennsylvania town. Mail began arriving, addressed only to the Communist Schempps in Roslyn, PA. There were late night calls, dog feces smeared on the porch and on doorknobs, and people sent hundreds of Bibles—"mostly New Testaments," she says.

Not all of the reaction was intolerant. Several local churches, in addition to their own Unitarian, publicly announced their support for the Schempps, and urged their congregations to try to understand that they were fighting what they felt was a social injustice, not fighting "against God."

Donna and Ellery both credit their affiliation with the Unitarian church for diluting the reactions and stemming possible violence. News stories nearly always mentioned that the Schempps were Unitarians or 'regularly go to the Unitarian church. "The fact that we were not atheists made all the difference in the world," Ellery remembers. "From the names we were called, I learned that if people were mad at us, they would call us 'Communists.' If they were really, really mad, they would call us 'atheists.' When they called us 'commie atheists' they had exhausted their vocabulary—that was the worst they could think of!"

In fact, as the Schempp case was unfolding, an outspoken atheist named Madalyn Murray (later, O'Hair) was fighting a brutal court battle against similar school-sponsored practices in Baltimore, Maryland. Murray and her children faced a frightening level of violence: their home was firebombed and her children were repeatedly harassed and beaten. The family fled Baltimore in fear and stayed for a weekend with the Schempps when Ellery was in college. (The Supreme Court ultimately joined the Schempp and O'Hair cases in its ruling on School District of Abington Township v. Schempp).

The Supreme Court

When the case hit the Supreme Court in February 1963, Donna was a senior in high school. She went to D.C. to hear the session. "I told everyone I was going to visit colleges. I never admitted what I was doing, even though my picture was on the front page of the paper the next day."

Before the Court, ACLU lawyer Henry Sawyer argued that the practice of Morning Devotions "suggests that public schools are a kind of Protestant institution to which all others are cordially invited." He went on to argue that students have a "have a right to [pray], Your Honor, but they haven't got a right to get the state to help them."  Philip Ward, the lawyer representing the school district asked: "How do we use the Bible in schools? We say, and the [Pennsylvania] statute says, to bring lessons in morality to the children."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Schempps in an 8-1 decision. Justice Tom Clark wrote the Court's majority opinion. "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one," he wrote. But its proper place is in "the home, the church, and the individual heart and mind."

"The decision from the Supreme Court came down the day after we graduated from high school," Donna says. "The next morning, the kids who weren't seniors were in their homerooms. Roger and I went to school and just stood in the hallway to listen to what they would do [instead of Morning Devotions]. They said, 'Due to the recent Supreme Court decision we will now stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.' They did it without editorial comment, which felt okay."

With the last of the Schempp children graduated, students in Abington seemed to forget, for the most part, the case. Adults had a harder time accepting it. Members of Congress, outraged at a Court that, as one senator from Alabama put it, "put God out [of schools]," tried to pass an amendment to the Constitution allowing school-sponsored prayer. It failed. Governor George Wallace vowed that Alabama would defy the ruling and continue Bible reading and prayers in public schools.

Unfinished Business

Today, Donna looks back and still feels the sting. "I embrace this intellectually," she says. "It's impressive and exciting, and I think it was brave, but it's also my deepest darkest secret. It took a long time to build confidence and feel socially accepted. That's the unfinished business of this thing."

"When I hear about [national issues involving children], my first thought is, 'How supportive is the family?' Adults want to do these things, but who's taking care of the kids. These great valiant fights—no one talks about how to support the child who's going through it." - Donna Schemmp

Donna sympathizes with children who become embroiled in political battles, knowing that children's best interests sometimes get lost: "When I hear about Elian Gonzalez or court battles over girls being accepted into the Little League," she says," my first thought is, 'How supportive is the family?' Adults want to do these things, but who's taking care of the kids. These great valiant fights—no one talks about how to support the child who's going through it."

What would have helped? "I think what was missing was an adult support person who could understand the world from my point of view. When I said, 'Let's not rock the boat,' they'd understand. Someone to acknowledge my reality, rather than saying, 'Don't let it bother you, it's not important what other people think.'"

Looking Ahead

As this controversy continues in schools across the country, there will be young people at the heart of the issue, struggling to fit in and find acceptance.Spirituality and prayer are deeply personal issues—and when pushed into public debates, can spark fiery conflict that too often breaks the "Golden Rule" and pits adults against adults, and children against children. "The Bible and the Ten Commandments are no guarantee of morality," Ellery says now. "Respect for others, tolerance, fairness, and respect for the Constitution represent higher morality for schools and children."

For more information, read the text of the Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe ruling.

Caitlin Johnson is Managing Editor at SparkAction, and was formerly a staff writer at Connect for Kids.

Caitlin Johnson