50 Years of Church-State Separation in Public Schools: An Interview with First Amendment Champion Ellery Schempp

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended school-sponsored Bible readings in public schools. Abington School District v. Schempp successfully challenged a Pennsylvania law that required a daily reading of the Bible in public schools. The 8-1 ruling in the case, which was combined with a similar challenge by Madalyn Murray O'Hair and the Baltimore, Maryland, public schools, is one of many in a continuing battle to support the church-state separation principle in our Constitution.


Ellery Schempp, the high school student whose parents brought the original case on his behalf, continues to be an activist for church-state separation. In 2012, he showed up to support Jessica Ahlquist in her successful court fight to remove a prayer banner from her Cranston, Rhode Island, high school. (You can hear an interview with him on a 2012 episode of the AHA’s podcast, The Humanist Hour, here.) He also speaks regularly to humanist and secular groups across the country. He wrote an article for HNN last year for the 50th anniversary of another important church-separation case, Engel v. Vitale, a Supreme Court decision that ended school-sponsored prayers in public schools.

We caught up with Schempp during his current travels marking the 50th anniversary of the ruling in his case, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.


HNN: From what you've seen since the 1963 court decision, including recent developments in the area of church-state separation, are you optimistic about our future?

Schempp: We know that the U.S. has gone through periods of religious fervor in the past, the "Great Awakenings" as described by historians. They waxed and waned. The present fervor will wane, too. The good signs are that many Americans have become skeptical of organized religion, and that some 20% of us now are open about being non-believers, non-theists, atheists, humanists; and more who come from non-Christian traditions. 

Written By: Brian Magee
continue to source article at americanhumanist.org

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  1. Great idea – dethrone the bible by showing the multiple versions, mistranslations, and scriptures from other religions etc.

    Something similar applies to some Muslims here. Many Aussies are of Indonesian family background were required to memorise scriptural passages in school. But it’s traditionally recited in Arabic which hardly anyone in Indonesia actually speaks. Implications might be that passionate believers could be less than entirely confident about exactly what it is they are believing in. May help to tone down the risk fundamentalism.

    Other aspects of public schooling are on the way to a dethroning. Next step from state – church separation in public schools would be state – school separation. Kids already can’t really study public affairs, government, and society etc. owing to the extraordinary extent of dishonesty, unethical behaviour, and corruption displayed by senior politicians and public officials. It’s only a matter of time before increasingly complex HSE regulations prevent young children in school grounds from being exposed to contact with high risk individuals, including religious or political leaders.

    If the department of education micromanagement is separated from public schools then schools might no longer being compelled to impose compulsory English and scripture classes – allowing more resources for science education. Perhaps by recruiting actual scientists as teachers, instead of leaving science classes to those deemed inadequate for teaching English or scripture.

  2. Pete H: . “Next step from state – church separation in public schools would be state – school separation.”

    I’d be wary of state-school separation, if only because it would undermine church-school separation that is a by product of the state-church separation and the state-funded education model. In the UK at least, a national curriculum imposed by the department of education is what prevents (or until recently prevented) the flourishing of faith schools. I mean we still have faith schools, but they’re strictly governed in what they can teach. Take down the state-school relationship and we’ll see countless ‘Christian Academies’ poping up like in the US.

    And I’m not sure why you’re linking English with Scripture. The former is important for higher level communication, the other is superfluous and actually prevented by the state-school relationship you seem to want abolished.

  3. This was an eye opener. If a school board or city council want to put prayers into school or town council meetings, why does it always have to go through a long-winded court battle, time and again, to get them to stop? Why are schools and councils all over the country still doing it? Is it because the worst that can happen to them is that they have to stop proselytizing?

    If the landmark case was decided in law 50 years ago, and they are in blatant, intentional breach of it, why can’t they be arrested on the spot and charged with maladministration at the very least? Why do we have to keep fighting the same legal battle if it was won 50 years ago?

    • In reply to #3 by Dave H:

      This was an eye opener. If a school board or city council want to put prayers into school or town council meetings, why does it always have to go through a long-winded court battle, time and again, to get them to stop? Why are schools and councils all over the country still doing it? Is it because t…

      Its because a large number of electors are religious fanatics and politicians can’t be elected without their support

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