Pennsylvania Could Finally Repeal Mandatory Bible-Reading Law… 50 Years After the Supreme Court Declared it Unconstitutional

June 17th will mark the 50th anniversary of Abington School District v. Schempp, the Supreme Court case that finally ended mandatory Bible readings in public schools.

Abington Senior High School, where a young Ellery Schempp took a stand against reading the Bible, is in Pennsylvania, which is why it might strike you as a little strange that the Public School Code of 1949 — the document explaining how the state’s public schools must operate and which gets amended when needed — still includes Section 1516, laying out how “at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day”:

Yes, it’s completely unenforceable. Yes, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. But it’s still in the books.

But if Rep. Mark Cohen gets his way, Section 1516 will soon be eliminated.

Rep. Mark Cohen

Cohen, a Democrat from Philadelphia, sent an email to his House colleagues yesterday letting them know in advance that he plans to introduce legislation to repeal Section 1516 for good:

My legislation to repeal this unenforceable section of the Public School Code would be consistent with the decision of the United States Supreme Court striking down public school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer as unconstitutional in the landmark case School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, decided on June 17, 1963. Note the stirring words of Justice Tom C. Clark in that decision:

“The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.

Please join me in repealing Section 1516 of the Public School Code mandating the reading of the Holy Bible in public schools, updating the code and making it consistent with the Supreme Court ruling in the Schempp case.

This should be a non-controversial issue. It’s already the law of the land. But keep in mind this is a House that has Republicans in the majority and is known for passing all sorts of pro-religion legislation. 2012 was the Year of the Bible. October, 2012 was declared Prayer Month. May 3rd, 2012 was a Day of Prayer. And just last month, they considered a resolution declaring “American Religious History Week” which centered around Christianity (of course).

Like I said, Cohen’s proposal should be non-controversial. But we’re talking about the Pennsylvania House here. Who knows how they’ll approach this.

Incidentally, Rep. Cohen initially voted for the Year of the Bible resolution only to apologize for it later. Getting Section 1516 repealed would be a great way to atone for his misguided vote.

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.

  • Baby_Raptor

    We all know what’ll happen. The Republicans will refuse to let it pass, while crying that the evil Democrats are trying to revoke the good, Christian laws that the country was based on. They’ll scream about how this is yet another example of people trying to take God out of the public square.

    And they won’t ever mention that the law is Unconstitutional, or that it was ruled such 50 years ago.

    Edit to fix the year.

  • L.Long

    What this is awesome? Why? Look at NC which only recently took the ‘no mixed marriages’ off the books, and then replaced it with let’s hate the gays. Look at all the states that have religious test for public office still in place.
    But we still have celebrate the small victories as they come.
    Every nick in their armor is one step closer to a truly secular non-theocratic nation.

  • Space Cadet

    At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day.

    I wonder what the “without comment” part is about. Is it applied to the teacher as a way of discouraging proselytizing? Is it applied to the students so they don’t ask pesky questions the teacher doesn’t want to discuss? Something else?

    • Brian Westley

      From reading the oral argument transcripts:
      “In order to keep out any possibility of theology, of doctrines sneaking in, they say it shall be read without comment.”

      It was a sop to make the bible reading as bland as possible in an attempt to keep it legal.

      • Sweetredtele

        Keep theology out of our theology!

      • Rich Wilson

        I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess it was less about keeping it legal (I mean, how could the bible be anything but?) but rather keeping the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879s from getting into arguments with the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915s over exactly what some verse ‘meant’.

        • Brian Westley

          “Die, heretic scum” and I pushed him off.

      • Space Cadet

        To me that reads more as a way to keep it authoritative than to keep it bland.

        Thanks for digging that up.

  • Rich Wilson

    Next election cycle the attack ads will color him as the man who wanted our kids to get shot in schools.

    • JET

      I laughed… and then I thought “… wait… someone will actually say this.”

  • allein

    Shouldn’t there be some way that these obviously unenforceable laws get automatically stricken from the books? Why do they have to go through all this ridiculousness of drafting legislation and voting to get rid of things like this? It’s such a waste of time.

    • baal

      As a practical matter, it works better to require clean up via an affirmative act later. The losing side likes having the legally meaningless words still on the books to point to. If the court decisions triggered an order to the legislature the losing side would get all up in it about separation of powers. By waiting for a legislator to do it, you side step the SOP issue and maybe can wait fo heads to cool or for a more favorable membership for the repeal vote.

      • allein

        I suppose so. It just all seems so silly when you think too much about it.

      • Jeff

        It also provides a hypothetical work-around for people who support the unenforceable law. Because it’s really only unenforceable so long as the state of Pennsylvania is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Should that status change for whatever reason, BAM, they get to enforce it all they like.

    • stop2wonder

      Well, if the Supreme Court would ever do an about face on a particular law, the state law would already be on the books and would become enforceable.

      I don’t know if that’s ever actually happened but theoretically is possible.

    • HRG

      That’s why the Constitutional Court of Austria (where I live) *repeals* the laws which it has found to be unconstitutional.

  • Art_Vandelay

    If I were a teacher, I’d just read Ezekiel 23:20 ten times every day.

    • Greg G.

      I was going to bring up Ezekiel 23. If John 3:16 is being read more often than Ezekiel 23:20, then they are employing an implicit commentary.

      Ensure that verses about victims forced to marry their rapists, smashing babies against the rocks, forcing mothers to eat their young, and Paul’s wish that the disciples castrate themselves be put into the rotation and they’d be more willing to abolish the law.

      • busterggi

        And pissing against walls, that just keeps showing up in the OT.

    • Feminerd

      If this was being enforced, I’d pick the most gruesome, horrible passages possible. Or just read 10 verses of “begats”. It’d depend on the age of the kids, really; I don’t think it’s a great idea to traumatize 7-year-olds with the Bible.

      • Art_Vandelay

        Why should the churches get to have all the fun?

      • busterggi

        Nah, just read a non-bowlderized version of the Song of Solomon and traumatize their parents instead.

        • Feminerd

          Oooh that would work. Or the Ezekiel (I think?) porn.

          • onamission5

            Song of Solomon. That there is some serious bible pron.

  • Pofarmer

    Maybe someone would like to take on this idiocy.

    I don’t have it in me right now.

    • Castilliano

      Maybe you have it in you to upvote those of us who have taken up the banner thanks to your prompt.


      • Art_Vandelay

        That was well done and I agree with everything you said but on my feed on that blog, the most up-voted comments go towards the bottom.

        I personally didn’t make it too far past when he referred to himself in the 3rd person.

  • WallofSleep

    I’m kind of torn on this. On the one hand, any kind religious promotion does not belong in a gov’t agency. On the other hand, if we don’t make these little ankle biters read the bible, how are we gonna make more atheists.

    • busterggi

      ” On the other hand, if we don’t make these little ankle biters read the bible, how are we gonna make more atheists.”

      Clearly you have not read the Song of Solomon.

  • Rain

    Maybe next they will repeal mandatory goat-herding or mandatory cave dwelling. Totally unenforceable.

  • TnkAgn

    First, Mississippi repeals slavery just a few months ago, and now this? Ain’t America great?