An unsung heroine of church-state separation died on Monday, July 5, of liver disease in Castro Valley, Calif. Sidney G. Schempp, 91, was a key figure in one of the most controversial church-state cases in American history. The decision that bears her family's name, Abington Township School District v. Schempp, barred school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools.
The case began when Ellery Schempp, a student at Abington High School near Philadelphia, decided to challenge the school's policy of having students read from the King James Version of the Bible over a public address system each day. The Schempps, who were Unitarians, did not believe that public schools should be in the business of promoting any religion.
Ellery Schempp agreed to offer the reading one morning, but when he got to the microphone pulled a quick switch and tried to read from a copy of the Koran. The school's principal was not pleased, and the stunt led to Ellery's expulsion. At home, Ellery explained to his parents, Sidney and Edward, what had happened and said he wanted to contact the American Civil Liberties Union. Sidney and Ed backed him 100 percent. Ellery's younger siblings, Roger and Donna, helped keep the case alive after Ellery graduated.
The case did not sit well with some people. The family endured a lot of harassment, including hate mail, harassing phone calls and rotten fruit lobbed at their house. But they prevailed, and the Schempp case, handed down in 1963, stands as a powerful bulwark against government-sponsored religion. The Supreme Court has cited it repeatedly since then.
Sidney Schempp's July 9 obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer summarized her life and her long commitment to social justice and civil liberties. It noted that she was a longtime member of Unitarian Universalist churches in the Philadelphia area and in California, where she later relocated. She was voted Woman of the Year in 1982 by the Unitarian Church in Cherry Hill, N.J.
An ardent environmentalist, Sidney loved visiting national parks and enjoying the beauty of the countryside. In an e-mail message announcing Sidney's death, Ellery Schempp wrote, "She believed in separation of church and state and our family's role in the Supreme Court case, and she deserves much credit, especially for helping Roger and Donna to cope in their teen years."
Sidney and Edward Schempp, who died last year, are gone, but the legacy they left behind will inspire advocates of church-state separation for many years to come.
For more information, read Abington Township School District v. Schempp.