Edward Schempp — filed suit over prayer in schools

Edward L. Schempp, a parent whose lawsuit against the required reading of Bible verses in school led to a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1963 restricting such practices, died on Nov. 8 at a nursing home in Hayward. He was 95.

A similar case in Baltimore, filed by the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was combined with Mr. Schempp’s case by the court. Her name became much better known, not least because of her outspokenness. But Mr. Schempp’s case elicited the bulk of the court’s opinion.

The 8-1 ruling on June 17, 1963, barring mandatory Bible reading in public schools was a link in a chain of rulings that defined the lines between church and state at school.

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The ruling followed the Supreme Court decision in 1962 outlawing a required prayer in New York public schools and preceded a milestone 1971 ruling that declared direct governmental assistance to religious schools unconstitutional.

The decision in the Schempp-O’Hair case was significant because it expanded the constitutional grounds used in the New York case. In particular, Justice Tom Clark in his majority opinion said the 14th Amendment due process protections made the First Amendment prohibitions of establishing or inhibiting religious expression applicable to the states.

Mr. Schempp was a native Philadelphian who took an ownership role in his father’s hardware business when he was 18. He became concerned about a 1949 Pennsylvania state law requiring the reading of 10 Bible verses each day, followed by joint recitation of the Lord’s Prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Mr. Schempp objected because he and his family did not believe in Christ’s divinity and the doctrine of the Trinity, among other teachings. In 1956, his son Ellory protested by reading from the Koran during the Bible reading. After he was reprimanded, his father filed suit in federal court against the Abington, Pa., school district, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1959, a panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia ruled the Bible- reading law unconstitutional. The school district appealed to the Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the same federal court.

After the Philadelphia court upheld its earlier ruling, the state appealed to the Supreme Court.

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New York Times, via the San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Nov. 24, 2003

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