Abington School District v. Schempp
Religious freedom became a social issue in the 1960s along with desegregation and women’s rights. That’s the setting for Abington School District v. Schempp, a Supreme Court case that challenged the constitutionality of a state law requiring public school students to read or listen to Bible passages in school. Pennsylvania was one of four states that required such a reading of Bible passages at the start of school in the morning, while about two-dozen other states had laws allowing such a Bible reading but did not require it.
The U.S. District Court decided the case in favor of Schempp but the school district appealed it. During the period of the appeal, the law was amended to excuse students from the prayer period with a parent’s written permission. Schempp appealed anyway, and the Supreme Court remanded the case for the District Court to reconsider. The District Court did not agree that the school district’s policy change allowing students to be excused was sufficient because state law still required Bible verses to be read in every school every day.
In its second round, the U.S. District Court followed the precedent set by Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case in which parent of public school students in New York protested the school system’s compulsory prayer which referenced “Almighty God.” The Court decided that even a school-written prayer that appeared nondenominational still violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
One member of the court, Justice Stewart, argued in his dissent that the concept of a state-sponsored religion was outdated and didn’t need to be guarded against.
The case gave rise to infamous characters such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist and mother of a defendant, and Rev. Billy Graham, a Christian fundamentalist who argued that America was becoming a Godless wasteland due to the absence of prayer in the schools.