Ellery Schempp Speaks Out in Favor of Jessica Ahlquist

When the Cranston School Committee had public meetings about whether or not to appeal the ruling to take down the prayer banner at Cranston High School West, local residents were allowed to speak (for 3 minutes), followed by non-residents.

Locals filled up four pages’ worth of sign-ups to speak and after 2.5 hours of comments, they barely got through the first two pages.

That meant Ellery Schempp, the atheist whose Supreme Court case helped stop mandatory Bible readings from public schools nationwide, didn’t get to make a public statement.

But he was nice enough to let me publish it here:

My name is Ellery Schempp and I am here to support Jessica and the separation of Church & State.

I know a bit about these issues because there was a Supreme Court case about Bible-reading and prayer in public schools 50 years ago. Abington v. Schempp cited in Judge Lagueux’s decision. I was the same age as Jessica Ahlquist when I and my family started this case.

How many actually read Judge Lagueux’s opinion? I mean all 40 pages, not just newspaper headlines or email accounts?

Y ou know, he considered the history, our traditions, the law, legal precedent, the rights of students, the rights of parents, the place of prayer and the responsibilities of governments and school authorities. It is a very good decision.

I strongly urge the School Committee not to attempt an appeal in the courts. You will lose. You will waste taxpayer money. You will waste resources of this city and the courts.

You will lose not because of Judge Lagueux, but because there are 75 years of legal decisions by the Supreme Court upholding separation of Church & State, keeping schools neutral in matters of religion.

Just to mention a few: Everson (1947); McCollum (1948); Engel v Vitale (1962); Abington (1963); Lee v. Weisman, Barnette v Board of Education; many others. Jessica is not just one person; there are many thousands of students who have experienced discriminations in the past and thousands more who support separation of religious notions from our public schools. We are a many-splendored country with a vast variety of beliefs, social and religious.

The courts of this Republic have continually expanded on these decisions about prayers at graduation; at football games; prohibiting using the school’s authority to proselytize; forbidding teachers to use class time to promote religious doctrine… We are not a Christian nation; we are a Constitutional nation.

The vitalizing idea from the Engel case is: It is no part of the business of government to be composing prayers. Or selecting them. “What is the business of government?” Surely it is about providing solid education and not anything at all about prayers.

The poster on the wall says it is a prayer. Prayer is a religious notion, and it has no secular purpose whatsoever. We might even think of it as blasphemy if you read the Bible, Matthew 6: 5-7, which warns against public displays of piety.

The prayer to “Our heavenly father” is religious doctrine, pure and simple. Why not father(s)? Earth Mother is a similar religious thought. It promotes the notion of a heaven. I started worrying about this years ago when it seemed that heaven was getting punched with holes by all the rockets sent up.

This prayer is certainly not Buddhist or Hindu. Not Muslim. Not Jewish. Certainly not atheist. Thus, it is purely Christian. It is clearly discriminatory; it makes non-believers second class citizens.

As to the “display” and history issue, obviously a display of the Lord’s Prayer — either the Catholic or Protestant version — would be unconstitutional.

The “Lord’s Prayer” is far more historic. It is a prayer case not a display case. If the prayer banner said, “Our prophet Mohammed…” all those outraged here this evening would be fervently on the side of separation of school and religion.

Atheism and humanism are not just another religion. We do not accept the notion of supernatural interventions in human affairs. The prayer promotes the particular religious doctrine of monotheism. Many consider the notion of a single god intellectually unsustainable and unnecessary. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby. Abstinence is not a sex position.

The prayer promotes the notion that ethical behavior is infused from above, rather than coming from within. Isn’t education about developing the internal desire to learn and develop from inner resources? I mean, if calculus could be learned by downloading from heaven, we could save teachers a whole lot of time and trouble.

Removing this prayer poster does not show hostility to religion, but keeping it there does show endorsement. It is deceitful to argue that “secular” is hostile — secular means that government is to be neutral with regard to all things of religious conscience and should stand aside for individuals to form and to hold their own beliefs.

I think if Roger Williams were here today, he would be asking, what purpose does this poster have? He would be condemning the hate and fear that has arisen. He would ask, what if this prayer had never been posted? Would Cranston kids be less moral, less good, less tolerant? I think they would be about the same. And when it goes away, they will be about the same. They still have to pay attention in class, study, and do homework. So this is a lot of fuss about nothing.

Kids in other schools without this prayer? Aren’t they just as good? Is this somehow about trying to show some superiority?

He was a very sensible man. He would say, kids can pray at home or even at school if they come 10 minutes early.

Now some atheists are brave enough to come out of the closet, but discrimination is wrong… just as for gays or Asians or for that matter, Lutherans. Judge Lagueux’s decision was thoughtful and correct. It will easily withstand legal appeals. It is unwise and a dereliction of the School Committee’s fiscal responsibility if they carry forward a certain failure.

It’s not about this public display of a prayer. It is about wise and responsible school policies. It is about fairness for all students. It is about the real business of this school government.

Thank you.

Ellery’s appearance was featured in a couple of articles about the appeal meeting here and here.

There was also this cool video featuring both Ellery and Jessica:



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    Ellery is well spoken, it is a shame he didn’t speak.  His letter should be posted as op-ed piece in the local paper in Cranston as well as the Boston Globe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    love the end of the video.

    Today we’ll only be talking about the school budget, which is the most important thing this committee decides on
    *Appeal lawsuit protesters rush out of room*
    You’re welcome to stay… for our budget presentation… pretty crucial… where the funding for your children’s education is divided…

    You can tell these people are truely sincere in their interest of local public education… not just trying to fight a religious war.

    • Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Came to post what you have already stated.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    One of my biggest frustrations around this has been how few people actually read the decision, and yet weigh in as if they know constitutional law better than a federal judge.  I’d guess 90+% of the rhetoric was addressed in those 40 pages, and yet people are oblivious.

  • Terry

    A well crafted message, it is a shame that Dr Schempp did not get the chance to speak about his experience.  It is an appropriate and lovely statement. 

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

     Thank you, Dr. Schempp. We are living in a better country because of you. And thank you, Jessica, for continuing the fight.


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