In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled against school-sponsored Bible readings. The case was School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, and it marked a sea change in the effort to make public schools secular. According to the case, mandatory Bible readings in public schools violate the principle of religious freedom.
Ellery Schempp, the namesake of the case, which celebrated its 60th anniversary on June 17, was a junior in high school when he lodged the complaint against his Pennsylvania district. Every day in the Abington School District, in compliance with a 1913 state law requiring Bible readings at the start of a school day, teachers and students would read from the King James Version of the Bible. Schempp correctly called out this law as being unconstitutional and lodged a complaint that resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision against coercive forms of Bible readings in public school.
Schempp noticed one of the fundamental issues with the practice of forcing students to read the Bible in school: not everyone follows the Bible. Compulsory readings of a holy text – especially if you believe in a different holy text or in none at all – are uncomfortable. And no one should be made to affirm belief in or adherence to scripture that is not their own. Mandatory Bible readings in public schools violate the principle of religious freedom as not everyone follows the Bible or subscribes to the same religious beliefs.
No place for religious coercion
Reading the King James Version of the Bible isn’t even a neutral, Christian practice. The King James Bible is largely considered a Protestant translation, and directly reading from the Bible was not a Catholic tradition. School-sponsored Bible reading was – and is – a narrow practice that catered to specific denominations of Christianity while excluding everyone else.
In a recent interview, Schempp stressed the importance of church-state separation, saying “I believe very fervently that the separation of church and state is extremely important to preserve our democracy. … There is no place in the Constitution that mentions anything about the commandments, Bibles; it doesn’t even ask for divine providence.”
He’s right. Despite what Christian Nationalists insist, the Bible was not a building block of American society, nor is belief in a Christian God (or indeed any god) a requirement for being a citizen.
Freedom, not force
America confers great benefits on its residents, and one of those benefits is the freedom to believe and exercise that belief however one chooses. But with that benefit comes the responsibility to not interfere in the rights of others. That is the principle on display in the First Amendment’s religion clauses. You are free to practice how you wish – and so are others – but you cannot use the power of government to compel others to believe according to your wishes.
Schempp championed this ideal when he fought to remove coercive Bible readings from public schools. He helped to secure public schools as secular institutions, free from the tyranny of religious extremists. Unfortunately, Christian Nationalists are trying to repeal the efforts of Schempp by reintegrating religious practices and symbols into public schools. It will take all of us standing up and fighting for what’s right, just like Ellery Schempp did in the 1950s and 1960s, to ensure that our schools remain bastions of church-state separation.