Ellery Schempp Looks Back, Fifty Years After His Supreme Court Victory June 20, 2013

Ellery Schempp Looks Back, Fifty Years After His Supreme Court Victory

This is a guest post by Ellery Schempp.

Note: In 1956, when Ellery Schempp was a high school junior, he protested the required daily Bible reading at his school. That protest soon led to a lawsuit which, in 1963, resulted in a Supreme Court decision ending mandatory Bible readings in public schools for good. The Atlantic has a nice article about the case here.

On the 50th anniversary of his victory, I asked Ellery if he would offer a reflection on the case and his role in it.


I was in a contemplative mood as I wrote this. Somewhat overwhelmed by good wishes from good people.

I thank you for remembering this anniversary. I am happy to have lived long enough to remember not only the Abington decision (1963), but also pioneers like Vashti McCollum (1948), Steve Engel (1962), Madalyn Murray (joined with Abington, 1963), and later cases such as Lemon and Weismann, Epperson, Edwards, Griswold, many others. All these cases came from real people, and often the children suffered.

The really neat thing is that over 50 years, the Supreme Court has recognized the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, that is, that government does best when separated from religion. These many court decisions have ratified Engel, Abington, et al., by justices appointed by five presidents. But I doubt that the present Court radicals would agree with these decisions.

I am happy that devotional worship of the Bible in public schools has diminished. I think students are now more free to think for themselves and to think about evidence, without some authority figure or “scripture” to determine their understandings.

It does government no good to rely on magical thinking or prayer, and it does religion no good to deny reality.

I do not agree with “freedom of religion.” We all agree that anyone is free to imagine anything in their minds and dreams — fairies, pixies, invisible gods or unicorns. But we do not allow religious zealots to have prayer meetings in the middle of a highway, nor to offer up burnt offerings of animals on an altar, nor to let children die via faith healing. It is not “freedom of religion” that Catholic bishops and anti-abortion, anti-contraception extremists want, it is religious control. They already have freedom to follow their dogmas in their personal lives, but they do not have the right to impose their dogmas on all the rest of us. It is a dangerous doctrine the extremists promote — that “freedom of religion” gives anyone the privilege to opt out of laws they don’t agree with, to opt out of societal goals of fairness in employment; non-exploitation of women and children; non-discrimination, and other matters of social justice.

I think we as freethinkers must continually be conscious of why we believe what we believe. We think that evidence-based belief systems are difficult, but better and ultimately more powerful than faith-based beliefs. But attending this we must be aware that our our brains can fool us in dreams, hallucinations, hypnopompic/hypnogogic states between sleep and wakefulness, anecdotal tales, and via confirmation bias.

What is important to me now?

I am glad that Friendly Atheists and younger people carry on with larger understandings for inclusiveness in our human family. It is nice to think that I made some impact, but I will leave the scene. And I want to emphasize that none of us ever did anything alone. We gain our individual strengths from our collective strengths. Without the ACLU and my parents, and teachers and friends, I would have just been another boy growing up in the suburbs.

I think the challenge to our atheist communities is not about our personal beliefs, but how we can work together. One can believe anything in the dark of the night or at a keyboard. Rejecting a god concept may be significant in our personal lives and ethical understandings. Fine enough for freedom of belief.

But a commitment to separation of church and state is even more important. This is about more than our personal brains, because it is social and political. If we do not have strict separation of government from religious pieties, no non-belief is safe.

I look forward to a time when atheists, humanists, and other non-theists will be recognized as a voting bloc. Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, etc., get pandered to. Even as we have become some 20% of the population, we are rarely seen as a political force.

I am glad for the role that I played to enlarge separation of church and state. I think a sentence from the Engel decision is very powerful: “It is no part of the business of government to be composing prayers…” That is the essence — what is the proper business of government.

Best wishes to all Friendly Atheists,


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