Abington School District v. Schempp

From Academic Kids

Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett), Template:Ussc was a United States Supreme Court case argued on February 2728, 1963 and decided on June 17, 1963. In the case, the Court decided 8-1 in favor of the respondent, Edward Schempp, and declared sanctioned organized Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional. The case was part of a string of Supreme Court cases ruling on the place of religion in public schools, and was both condemned by social conservatives and celebrated by civil rights activists.



Origination of case

The Abington case began when Edward Schempp, a Unitarian and a resident of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, filed suit against the Abington Township School District in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to prohibit enforcement of a Pennsylvania state law that required his children to hear and sometimes read portions of the Bible as part of their public school education. That law (24 Pa. Stat. 15-1516, as amended, Pub. Law 1928) required that "[a]t least ten verses from the Holy Bible [be] read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day." Schempp specifically contended that the statute violated his and his family's rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.1

When it was brought, this case illustrated for Americans the metamorphosis their society was undergoing. Although many must have disagreed with local school districts conducting organized prayers and Bible readings, only a small minority vocally expressed objection to the statutes mandating those activities. Most U.S. citizens held the belief that the United States was a nation founded on Christian principles. Yet, in spite of their widely held beliefs, as early as 1890, many states were rolling back mandates of state sponsored devotional exercises in the classroom (Boston, 1993, p. 105).

Like four other states, Pennsylvania law included a statute compelling school districts to perform Bible readings in the mornings before class. Twenty-five states had laws allowing "optional" Bible reading, with the remainder having no laws supporting or rejecting Bible reading. In eleven of those states with laws supportive of Bible reading or state-sponsored prayer, courts had declared them unconstitutional (Boston, 1993, p. 101).

The district court arguments

At the first District Court trial, Edward Schempp and his children testified as to specific religious doctrines purveyed by a literal reading of the Bible "which were contrary to the religious beliefs which they held and to their familial teaching" (177 F. Supp. 398, 400). The children testified that all of the doctrines to which they referred were read to them at various times as part of the exercises. Edward Schempp testified at the second trial that he had considered having his children excused from attendance at the exercises but decided against it for several reasons, including his belief that the children's relationships with their teachers and classmates would be adversely affected.

Expert testimony was introduced by both Schempp and the school district at the first trial, which testimony the trial court summarized as follows:

Dr. Solomon Grayzel testified that there were marked differences between the Jewish Holy Scriptures and the Christian Holy Bible, the most obvious of which was the absence of the New Testament in the Jewish Holy Scriptures. Dr. Grayzel testified that portions of the New Testament were offensive to Jewish tradition. . . . [and he] cited instances in the New Testament which, assertedly, were not only sectarian in nature but tended to bring the Jews into ridicule or scorn. Dr. Grayzel gave as his expert opinion that. . . . if portions of the New Testament were read without explanation, they could be, and in his specific experience . . ., had been, psychologically harmful to the child and had caused a divisive force within the social media of the school. . . . But Dr. Grayzel did state that many portions of the New, as well as of the Old, Testament contained passages of great literary and moral value.
Dr. Luther A. Weigle, an expert witness for the [school district], testified in some detail as to the reasons for and the methods employed in developing the King James and the Revised Standard Versions of the Bible. On direct examination, Dr. Weigle stated that the Bible was non-sectarian. He later stated that the phrase 'non-sectarian' meant to him non-sectarian within the Christian faiths. Dr. Weigle stated that his definition of the Holy Bible would include the Jewish Holy Scriptures, but . . . would not be complete without the New Testament. He stated that the New Testament 'conveyed the message of Christians.' In his opinion, reading of the Holy Scriptures to the exclusion of the New Testament would be a sectarian practice. Dr. Weigle stated that the Bible was of great moral, historical and literary value. This is conceded by all the parties and is also the view of the court. (177 F. Supp. 398, 401-402. Taken from Template:Ussc)

The district court ruling

The district court ruled in Schempp's favor, and struck down the Pennsylvania statute. The school district appealed the ruling, and while that appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the statute to allow children to be excused from the exercises upon the written request of their parents. This change did not satisfy Schempp, however, and he continued his action against the school district, charging that the amendment of the law did not change its nature as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. (Due to the change in the law, the Supreme Court had responded to the school district's appeal by vacated the first ruling and remanding the case back to the district court.) The district court again found for Schempp. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court again, and, on appeal, the case was consolidated with a similar Maryland case launched by Madalyn Murray (Boston, 1993, p. 106).

The district court ruling in the second trial, in striking down the practices and the statute requiring them, made specific findings of fact that the children's attendance at Abington Senior High School was compulsory and that the practice of reading 10 verses from the Bible was also compelled by law. It also found that:

The reading of the verses, even without comment, possesses a devotional and religious character and constitutes in effect a religious observance. The devotional and religious nature of the morning exercises is made all the more apparent by the fact that the Bible reading is followed immediately by a recital in unison by the pupils of the Lord's Prayer. The fact that some pupils, or theoretically all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony for . . . Section 1516 . . . unequivocally requires the exercises to be held every school day in every school in the Commonwealth. The exercises are held in the school buildings and perforce are conducted by and under the authority of the local school authorities and during school sessions. Since the statute requires the reading of the 'Holy Bible,' a Christian document, the practice . . . prefers the Christian religion. The record demonstrates that it was the intention of . . . the Commonwealth . . . to introduce a religious ceremony into the public schools of the Commonwealth. (201 F. Supp., at 819; quoted in Template:Ussc)

Precedents for case

Abington explicitly upheld Engel v. Vitale, in which the Court ruled that the sanctioning of a prayer by the school amounted to a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Abington court held that in organizing a reading of the Bible, the school was conducting "a religious exercise", and "that cannot be done without violating the 'neutrality' required of the State by the balance of power between individual, church and state that has been struck by the First Amendment" (Template:Ussc). Over the previous two decades, the Supreme Court, by incorporating specific rights into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, had steadily increased the extent to which rights contained in United States Bill of Rights were applied against the states.2 Abington was a continuation of this trend with regard to the Establishment of Religion Clause of the First Amendment, and specifically built upon Supreme Court precedents in Cantwell v. Connecticut (Template:Ussc), Everson v. Board of Education (Template:Ussc), and McCollum v. Board of Education (Template:Ussc).

The bench


Concurring opinions

  1. Written by: Justice Douglas
  2. Written by: Justice Brennan
  3. Written by: Justice Goldberg
    • Joined by: Justice Harlan


The case

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in order to settle the persistent and vigorous protests resulting from its previous decision in Engel v. Vitale regarding religion in schools (White & Zimmerman, p. 70).

The decision

The Supreme Court upheld the District Court's decision and found the Pennsylvania prayer statute unconstitutional by virtue of the facts in the case, as well as the clear line of precedent established by the Supreme Court. In writing the opinion of the Court, Justice Thomas Clark stated, "This Court has decisively settled that the First Amendment's mandate [in the Establishment Clause] has been made wholly applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment . . . in a series of cases since Cantwell (Eastland, 1993, p. 151; Davis, 1991, 91).

What was unexpected, however, were the ideas expressed in the second portion of Justice Clark's opinion written for the majority. The Court's recognition of religious ideals as valuable to the culture of the United States in that opinion are generally not cited by either side of the church-state debate, either by ignorance or purposeful omission, when discussing the case and the effect it had on the United States. His opening thoughts explicitly spelled out that view in past jurisprudence with cases similar to Abington v. Schempp.

Clark continued that the Court was of the feeling that no matter the religious nature of the citizenry, the government at all levels, as required by the Constitution, must remain neutral in matters of religion "while protecting all, prefer[ring] none, and disparag[ing] none". The Court had clearly rejected the contention by many that the Establishment Clause forbade only governmental preference of one faith over another (Eastland, 1993, p. 59).

Citing Justice Hugo Black in Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice Clark added, "We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion'". Neither can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs". Such prohibited behavior was that self-evident in the Pennsylvania law requiring Bible reading (and allowing recitation of the Lord's Prayer) in its public schools. The Court recognized the value of such ideal neutrality from lessons of history when government and religion were either fully fused or cooperative with one another and religious liberty was nonexistent or seriously curtailed.

Justice Brennan filed the only lengthy and truly historically significant concurrence in this case. The esteemed Justice took seventy-three pages to elaborate his ideas about what the Framers intended in the formation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, gauge the value of religion in our culture, review past precedents, and suggest a course for future church-state cases. Scholars have noted that his concurrence suggested "a willingness to engage in historical analysis" on the part of the Court (Davis, 1991, p. 77). He professed to be aware of the "ambiguities in the historical record" and felt a modern-day interpretation of the First Amendment was warranted (Davis, 1991, p. 77). In defense of that approach, Brennan stated:

Whatever Jefferson or Madison would have thought of Bible reading or the recital of the Lord's Prayer in . . . public schools . . ., our use of the history . . . must limit itself to broad purposes, not specific practices. . . . [T]he Baltimore and Abington schools offend the First Amendment because they sufficiently threaten in our day those substantive evils the fear of which called forth the Establishment Clause. . . . [O]ur interpretation of the First Amendment must necessarily be responsive to the much more highly charged nature of religious questions in contemporary society. A too literal quest for the advice of the Founding Fathers upon the issues of these cases seems to me futile and misdirected

In answer to critics of a broad interpretation of the prohibitions against government in the realm of religion, Brennan said, "nothing in the text of the Establishment Clause supports the view that the prevention of the setting up of an official church was meant to be the full extent of the prohibitions against official involvements in religion".

In the third section of his exhaustive concurrence, Justice Brennan charted the course that led to the incorporation of the First Amendment's religion clauses by way of answering the charge of Abington Township's counsel that Pennsylvania's Bible reading statute was a state issue, outside the purview of the federal court system, including that of the Supreme Court. He labeled the daily recitals of the Lord's Prayer and reading of the Bible as "quite [clear] breaches of the command of the Establishment Clause". He noted the long history of such practices, even before the "founding of our Republic". Additionally, he did not neglect to mention that most of those who demanded reading of the Bible and prayer in schools were hoping to serve "broader goals than compelling formal worship of God or fostering church attendance". He cited the 1858 words of the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, who saw the Bible as aptly suited to "teaching the noblest principles of virtue, morality, patriotism, and good order".

Justice Brennan took great pains to also show that many states, such as South Dakota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Ohio and Massachusetts, had already enacted and revoked laws similar to Pennsylvania's by the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, many political leaders including attorneys general and presidents like Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt insisted that "matters of religion be left to family altars, churches and private schools" and "[It] is not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in [public] schools". He added that the amendment allowing for excusal from participation did not have any relevance to the question of establishment of religion, since it was found that the practices were essentially religious and made use of public school buildings during school days.

One final point worthy of examination in Brennan's concurrence was his recognition of the plurality of religious thought in the nation as basis enough for restriction of church and state relations. He cited this lack of appreciation of that pluralism as the "basic flaw" of Pennsylvania's Bible reading statute and Abington Township's defense of it:

There are persons in every community—often deeply devout—to whom any version of the Judaeo-Christian Bible is offensive. There are others whose reverence for the Holy Scriptures demands private study or reflection and to whom public reading or recitation is sacrilegious. . . . To such persons it is not the fact of using the Bible in the public schools, nor the content of any particular version, that is offensive, but the manner in which it is used.

In a rather vehement tone, Justice Potter Stewart filed the only dissent in the case (Eastland, 1993, p. 164). In it, he was critical not only of the lower court opinions, but also the decision the Supreme Court had reached regarding them. It is clear he wished to remand the case to lower courts for further proceedings. He declared the cases "so fundamentally deficient as to make impossible an informed or responsible determination of the constitutional issues presented"—specifically, of whether the Establishment Clause was violated. As to the intent and scope of the religion clauses of the First Amendment:

It is, I think, a fallacious oversimplification to regard the [religion clauses] as establishing a single constitutional standard of "separation of church and state", which can be applied in every case to delineate the required boundaries between government and religion. . . . As a matter of history, the First Amendment was adopted solely as a limitation upon the newly created National Government. The events leading to its adoption strongly suggest that the Establishment Clause was primarily an attempt to insure that Congress not only would be powerless to establish a national church, but would also be unable to interfere with existing state establishments. . . . So matters stood until the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, or more accurately, until this Court's decision in Cantwell. . . .

He stated his agreement with the doctrine of the Fourteenth Amendment's embrace and application of the Bill of Rights, but pointed out the irony of such an amendment "designed to leave the States free to go their own way should now have become a restriction upon their autonomy" (Eastland, 1993, pp. 165).

Other critics of the Court's findings in Abington v. Schempp often quote the following excerpt from Justice Stewart's opinion:

If religious exercises are held to be an impermissible activity in schools, religion is placed in an artificial and state-created disadvantage. . . . And a refusal to permit religious exercises thus is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism, or at least, as governmental support of the beliefs of those who think that religious exercises should be conducted only in private (Eastland, 1993, pp. 165).

Effects of the case

The public was divided in reaction to the Court's decision. Newspapers were no exception. The Washington Evening Star was indeed rather critical of the decision, declaring that "God and religion have all but been driven from the public schools. What remains? Will the baccalaureate service and Christmas carols be the next to go? Don't bet against it." (Eastland, 1993, pp. 165). In contrast, the New York Times was more accepting of the Court's ruling. The paper printed significant portions of the opinions with no significant comments, either supportive or critical (Lewis, 1963, p. 16).

The views of various Christian entities on the decision were equally diverse. Speaking from the conservative Protestant perspective, the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham said, "[i]n my opinion . . . the Supreme Court . . . is wrong. . . . Eighty percent of the American people want Bible reading and prayer in the schools. Why should a majority be so severely penalized . . . ?" (New York Times, 1963, p. 17). The mainline denominations, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, registered less critical opinions of the verdict, in fact seeing it as a boon to religious freedom by its very limiting of governmental authority in the sphere of public schools (Dugan, 1963, p. 18). However, a majority of fundamentalist Christians today regard this decision as the one which "kicked God and prayer out of the schools" (McWilliams, 1993, p. 170).

Subsequent history

The United States Congress reacted swiftly; by April 1964, over 150 resolutions to overturn the decision by amending the Constitution had been proposed (O'Hair, 1974, p. 55). Calls continue today, mostly from conservative Republican and Religious Right activists, for an amendment to the Constitution to allow students to pray or read the Bible. This springs from the belief, on the part of school districts, parents, and concerned religious groups, that Abington v. Schempp prohibited such activity, when it actually restrained the government from interfering either to promote or prohibit such activity (Boston, 1993, p. 227).

Abington v. Schempp was used as precedent for similar cases like Board of Education v. Allen and Lemon v. Kurtzman in the decades that followed. The three part Lemon test had its basis in the jurisprudence of Abington v. Schempp. Under the test, a given church-state law is subjected to three criteria: sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the government in religious activity. Failure in any one of those realms allow the measure to be declared unconstitutional (Eastland, 1993, p. 215).


Note 1: Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett Template:Ussc. Note 2: The process of incorporation, or nationalization as it is also known, of the United States Bill of Rights began with cases (Template:Ussc and Template:Ussc) pitting the railroads against the government over just compensation for the taking of private property, due all persons (and corporations) under the Fifth Amendment. Next was First Amendment Freedom of Speech, in Fiske v. Kansas Template:Ussc. Freedom of Religion was first incorporated (albeit in dictum) in Hamilton v. Regents of the University of California Template:Ussc, and made official in Cantwell v. Connecticut Template:Ussc. Finally in Engel v. Vitale Template:Ussc, the court ruled that a state could not write or sanction an official prayer to be read by students at school. For a more detailed history of Incorporation, see Incorporation (Bill of Rights).


  • Billy Graham voices shock over decision. (18 June 1963). New York Times. p. 17.
  • Boston, Robert. (1993). Why the religious right is wrong: About separation of church and state. (1st ed.). Buffalo: Prometheus Books. ISBN 0879758341
  • Davis, Derek. (1991). Original Intent: Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Course of American Church-State Relations. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
  • Dugan, George. (18 June 1963). Churches divided, with most in favor. New York Times, p. 18.
  • Eastland, Terry, ed. (1993). Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court. Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center.
  • O'Hair, Madalyn Murray. (1974). Freedom Under Siege. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.
  • Lewis, Anthony. (18 June 1963). Government must be neutral in religion, majority asserts. New York Times. p. 16.
  • Licciardello, Carman. (1994). Raising the Standard: Reclaiming Our World for God. Nashville: Sparrow Press.
  • McWilliams, Peter. (1993). Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society. (1st ed.). Los Angeles: Prelude Press. ISBN 0931580536
  • White, Ronald C. & Zimmerman, Albright G. (Eds.). (1990). An Unsettled Arena: Religion and the Bill of Rights. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ISBN 0802804659

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