On Tuesday I flew to New England to speak to a humanist group in Worcester, Mass. It was a great event, and I pleased to see so many people venture out on a cold night to hear what I had to say.
As I surveyed the crowd from the podium, I spotted an old friend in the third row: Ellery Schempp.
That name may not mean much to some of our younger friends, but it should. Ellery was the plaintiff in a landmark school prayer case that reached the Supreme Court. In Abington School District v. Schempp, handed down in 1963, the high court declared mandatory, school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the public schools unconstitutional.
As I talked with Ellery after my speech, I was reminded how important people like him have been in the history of church-state separation. Our freedoms would have remained just words on parchment if Ellery and others hadn’t gone to court to end injustices.
Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ellery and his family fought in the courts for more than five years. When the Supreme Court released its decision on June 17, 1963, it was a lopsided 8-1 victory for the Schempps.
Activism like this often comes at a price. In Ellery’s case, he had to deal with a crass move by Abington High School’s principal, who disliked the case and actually wrote a letter to officials at Tufts University, where Ellery had been accepted, labeling him a troublemaker and urging them to deny him admission. (The pathetic ploy failed miserably. Ellery graduated from Tufts and went on to earn a Ph.D in physics from Brown University.)
Other plaintiffs in church-state cases have faced much worse. I was reminded of Joann Bell, a mother in Little Axe, Okla., who protested religious activity in her children’s public schools in 1981. Her home was burned down by an arsonist.
I was reminded of Jim McCollum, whose mother Vashti challenged in-school catechism classes in the late 1940s. Vashti was fired from her job, and Jim was assaulted in school after the lawsuit was filed.
I was reminded of Melinda Maddox, a plaintiff in an AU-sponsored lawsuit in Alabama against “Ten Commandments” judge Roy Moore. She returned home from her honeymoon to find that the windows of her house had been shot out.
Groups like Americans United do not have the power to come into a community and sue when there is a church-state violation unless we’re representing local people who are being negatively affected by the government’s actions. Over the years, many brave individuals have risked community backlash to stand up for separation of church and state. Our nation is a better, fairer place because of their activism.
Americans United members and supporters like you play an important role, too. You provide the funding that makes our work, including legal challenges, possible. You educate your communities about church-state separation. You organize and attend events and forums.
The Religious Right, of course, would rather that we don’t do any of these things. Its legal groups have even tired to deny us access to the courts on some occasions.
Attempts by would-be theocrats to shut us down are discouraging – but they will not succeed. As I looked over the crowd Tuesday night and as I chatted with Ellery afterwards, I was reminded that when people of different backgrounds, ages, faiths and philosophies work together to defend the church-state wall, great things are possible.
Ellery Schempp is living proof of that.