Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme handed down one of its most important church-state rulings. In School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the high court ruled 8-1 that state-mandated programs of Bible reading and prayer in public schools are unconstitutional.
Five decades later, the ruling in Schempp (and its companion case, Murray v. Curlett) remains widely misunderstood. Part of this is due to a deliberate campaign of misinformation by Religious Right groups, which have distorted the scope of the decision.
An article I wrote recently for Church & State attempts to set the record straight by giving some background about the Schempp case. It’s important to remember that the religious exercises in Pennsylvania, where the Schempp family lived, were in no way voluntary. Ellery Schempp got the case rolling by silently reading a copy of the Quran during the morning devotional. Even though Schempp wasn’t doing anything disruptive, he was sent to the principal’s office.
Nor were these practices “non-sectarian.” Pennsylvania law required daily readings from the “Holy Bible,” which was interpreted to mean the King James Version. The prayer recited was the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer. (Even if the prayers had been non-sectarian, they would still have been a problem for lots of students.)
Nothing in the Supreme Court’s ruling banned truly voluntary student prayer or reading of religious texts. Students can engage in those activities today as long as it’s during their free time and they do so in a non-disruptive fashion. In secondary schools, students can even form religious clubs (again entirely voluntary) that meet during “non-instructional” time.
The Schempp ruling also did not ban teaching about religion in public schools. Instruction about religion as an academic subject is permitted. Teachers are free to objectively discuss how religion affected history, its impact on art, music and literature and so on. The goal must be to teach, not preach.
Unfortunately, many Americans continue to be misled by Religious Right propaganda over prayer in schools. A recent survey by the Pew Forum found that 57 percent of respondents say they oppose the school prayer rulings. (Thirty-nine percent say they approve.)
There is hope, however: The Pew survey found stark differences among age groups. Generally speaking, the older an American is, the more likely he or she is to oppose the school prayer rulings. Pew found that 71 percent of people aged 75 or older oppose the decisions. Among people aged 18-29, only 38 percent express opposition, while 56 percent express support.
At the Religious Right meetings I attend, I often encounter older folks who pine for official school prayer. They assert that no one ever complained or that it was a good way to get the kids to settle down. They speak fondly of the religious exercises they participated in years ago.
It’s easy for them to say that because the prayers being recited were prayers from their faith tradition. They seem utterly incapable of understanding why someone of another faith (or no faith at all) might object. What they are really longing for are the days when the majority called the shots in matters of religion, and dissenters didn’t complain because they were afraid to.
We are a different nation now. All the polls show skyrocketing religious and philosophical pluralism. Any attempt to enforce a uniform theology in our public schools is doomed to failure.
As the Supreme Court made clear 50 years ago, the right of conscience is too precious to be left to the whims of government officials.
In his Schempp majority opinion, Justice Tom Clark quoted Justice Robert Jackson, who, in a previous decision, observed, “The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
That was good policy 50 years ago. It has only gotten better over time.