Ellery Schempp Looks Back, Fifty Years After His Supreme Court Victory

This is a guest post by Ellery Schempp.

Note: In 1956, when Ellery Schempp was a high school junior, he protested the required daily Bible reading at his school. That protest soon led to a lawsuit which, in 1963, resulted in a Supreme Court decision ending mandatory Bible readings in public schools for good. The Atlantic has a nice article about the case here.

On the 50th anniversary of his victory, I asked Ellery if he would offer a reflection on the case and his role in it.

***

I was in a contemplative mood as I wrote this. Somewhat overwhelmed by good wishes from good people.

I thank you for remembering this anniversary. I am happy to have lived long enough to remember not only the Abington decision (1963), but also pioneers like Vashti McCollum (1948), Steve Engel (1962), Madalyn Murray (joined with Abington, 1963), and later cases such as Lemon and Weismann, Epperson, Edwards, Griswold, many others. All these cases came from real people, and often the children suffered.

The really neat thing is that over 50 years, the Supreme Court has recognized the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, that is, that government does best when separated from religion. These many court decisions have ratified Engel, Abington, et al., by justices appointed by five presidents. But I doubt that the present Court radicals would agree with these decisions.

I am happy that devotional worship of the Bible in public schools has diminished. I think students are now more free to think for themselves and to think about evidence, without some authority figure or “scripture” to determine their understandings.

It does government no good to rely on magical thinking or prayer, and it does religion no good to deny reality.

I do not agree with “freedom of religion.” We all agree that anyone is free to imagine anything in their minds and dreams — fairies, pixies, invisible gods or unicorns. But we do not allow religious zealots to have prayer meetings in the middle of a highway, nor to offer up burnt offerings of animals on an altar, nor to let children die via faith healing. It is not “freedom of religion” that Catholic bishops and anti-abortion, anti-contraception extremists want, it is religious control. They already have freedom to follow their dogmas in their personal lives, but they do not have the right to impose their dogmas on all the rest of us. It is a dangerous doctrine the extremists promote — that “freedom of religion” gives anyone the privilege to opt out of laws they don’t agree with, to opt out of societal goals of fairness in employment; non-exploitation of women and children; non-discrimination, and other matters of social justice.

I think we as freethinkers must continually be conscious of why we believe what we believe. We think that evidence-based belief systems are difficult, but better and ultimately more powerful than faith-based beliefs. But attending this we must be aware that our our brains can fool us in dreams, hallucinations, hypnopompic/hypnogogic states between sleep and wakefulness, anecdotal tales, and via confirmation bias.

What is important to me now?

I am glad that Friendly Atheists and younger people carry on with larger understandings for inclusiveness in our human family. It is nice to think that I made some impact, but I will leave the scene. And I want to emphasize that none of us ever did anything alone. We gain our individual strengths from our collective strengths. Without the ACLU and my parents, and teachers and friends, I would have just been another boy growing up in the suburbs.

I think the challenge to our atheist communities is not about our personal beliefs, but how we can work together. One can believe anything in the dark of the night or at a keyboard. Rejecting a god concept may be significant in our personal lives and ethical understandings. Fine enough for freedom of belief.

But a commitment to separation of church and state is even more important. This is about more than our personal brains, because it is social and political. If we do not have strict separation of government from religious pieties, no non-belief is safe.

I look forward to a time when atheists, humanists, and other non-theists will be recognized as a voting bloc. Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, etc., get pandered to. Even as we have become some 20% of the population, we are rarely seen as a political force.

I am glad for the role that I played to enlarge separation of church and state. I think a sentence from the Engel decision is very powerful: “It is no part of the business of government to be composing prayers…” That is the essence — what is the proper business of government.

Best wishes to all Friendly Atheists,

Ellery

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.

  • The Other Weirdo

    But a commitment to separation of church and state is even more
    important. This is about more than our personal brains, because it is
    social and political. If we do not have strict separation of government
    from religious pieties, no non-belief is safe.

    Great post, but I have complaint/correction: It’s not just non-belief that is not safe without separation of church and state. All belief and non-belief is not safe. Just as they would persecute atheists–as they have before–they would also persecute those who don’t believe as they do, even if it’s the same god. Just look at the Muslim countries.

    • Kevin Beach

      I would call that an expansion, because what he said is true on its own, but what you said is related and equally true.

  • Art_Vandelay

    That was fantastic. This world needs more Ellery Schempps. To think, this is the guy that the demagogues blame for children being shot in schools. How do they sleep at night?

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I sometimes wonder if someone asked a series of situation questions, and left out catch phrases like “separation of church and state” if we would get much higher agreement from the public.

    Something I’ve observed in Amber Barnhill’s preschool prayer case is that people who flip out at her don’t understand the facts of the case. And for the few who actually stop to read her version of it, they completely change their mind and support her.

    People who’s rights aren’t the ones under threat aren’t so concerned with protecting them. When things are framed from a different pair of shoes, the principle is very simple.

    • 3lemenope

      Quite so. People use trigger phrases so as to shortcut the difficult task of thinking through everything. We (all of us do this a bit, at least) reinforce emotional reactions to phrases or names, which then heavily color all subsequent interactions with the concept or person named. Often this leaves the actual concept or person utterly unexamined, such that if it is presented in a different guise, it is not recognized as the loved or loathed thing the person has programmed themselves to view it as.

  • Malcolm McLean

    [religion shouldn't allow you ] to opt out of societal goals of fairness in employment; non-exploitation of women and children; non-discrimination, and other matters of social justice.

    That’s the rub. In Britain there was an attempt to ban “lads’ mags” (mild pornography presented in a jocular style). Supermarkets have to employ women on a equal basis to men, right? A woman might be offended by these lads’ mags, and it’s unreasonable for the supermarket to ask her to handle them. But if the supermarket just gets a lad to handle them, that’s illegal discrimination, right? So the lads’ mags can’t be sold.

    Once you start saying that the societal goal of anti-discrimination is so important that it trumps everything else, then a pretext can be found for banning anything you disagree with.

    • Spuddie

      Wow, more bad analogy from the person looking to extol discrimination.

      Do you ever actually address the topic at hand? Do you engage in such ridiculous dishonest diversions out of an admission that your position is bullshit?

      School prayer is the forced compulsion of students to engage in religious rites by government employed officials. It has no place in a democracy. It has no place in a country which respects religious freedom.

      • Malcolm McLean

        In an ideal world, parents would pay for education out of their own pocket. In Britain, where there’s a culture of private education for the rich, most private (often called public, just to confuse people) schools have a religious affiliation, sometimes largely nominal, sometimes very deep, Parents are making the decisions, there’s no compulsion involved, nothing to prevent anyone from setting up a “humanist” school if they so desire. In fact there isn’t a single one. Polly Toynbee, President of the British Humanist Association, chose Westminster, a Christian foundation, for her own family. Even she sees the benefits of Christian education.

        But it’s not an ideal world. The economics don’t add up, and most parents can’t afford it. So the state has to pay the fees. But that should be the limit of state involvement. Simply hand out education vouchers. Then the schools aren’t government institutions, their employees aren’t government employees, they are exactly like private schools except government steps in to help with the fees.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          Oh goodie. So as person with a minority religious viewpoint, I can pay taxes into a system that funds a school to teach my kid the way the majority wants. I guess I’m lucky I have the resources to move to somewhere where I’m not quite so outnumbered and maybe I can find a school more to my thinking. But those poor people who don’t have the resources to pick up and move, fuck ‘em. Their kids will do fine learning that they’ll burn in hell if they don’t ask Jesus into their hearts.

          Edit to add: If your only experience is with British schools where kids zone out and recite a prayer every morning, worse things have happened. In the US we have a very real issue with people wanting to teach our kids that the earth is 6K years old.

        • Spuddie

          Why would that be an ideal world? So education is strictly a function of wealth? A government with no duty to provide basic education for the citizens of a nation. That is hardly ideal. Ideal for oligarchy and dictatorship. That’s about it.

          Government has no duty to ensure your children are indoctrinated in the religious view of your choice. My tax dollars do not belong to your church. Nor should the entire public schooling system be upended to meet such goals.

          If it is that important to you, take out a loan for the tuition. Or better yet, accept that you can’t afford a posh religious school and indoctrinate your children on your own time.

          Compulsion of religious rites has no place in government entities ever. None are more pernicious than when it is done in schools. Children generally lack the wherewithal or ability to resist such authority.

          • Malcolm McLean

            Most parents can feed their children. So the food industry works reasonably well, children get to eat what their parents decide is the right diet for them. In the few cases where parents can’t afford it, the State steps in with food vouchers or money.
            Education isn’t like that. Most parents can’t afford it. So schooling is provided by government, except for the richest few. The result is the few get a decent education, often but not always in a Christian establishment, the many get rubbish.

            • Spuddie

              Except your definition of decent education is far different from an objective one. A decent education does not entail religious indoctrination. It is never the government’s role to provide that for you.

              Your whole argument is based on the lie that religious institutions are the only ones capable of providing decent education. In virtually all cases religious schools perform better than public ones due
              to the ability to chose their students not due to any aspect of the
              schools themselves.

              Your argument also fails to note that most of the private primary and secondary schools for the most wealthy are not religious based at all. Also middle class communities have very functional public schools.

              Religious education is not a necessary part of the process. Never has been. Its always been optional. As such, it doesn’t warrant tax dollars.

              • Malcolm McLean

                If you run a private school then, within very broad limits, you can run your establishment as you want. You can teach what you think is appropriate, which includes religious education lessons. Some private schools are secular, but a lot aren’t.

                Trinity school in Manhattan, for example, mandates at least one semester of religious studies for all pupils. The name tells you something about its values. It’s also extremely popular, turning away lots of applicants.

                • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

                  No one said religious private schools can’t be good. That would be empirically false. Spuddie pointed out that religious schools are often “better” in large part because they can cherry-pick students and families, not because the school is inherently better. Public schools are open to all comers, which means the kids with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental disabilities, living in homeless shelters, living in drug houses, living without electricity every other month, evicted, sleeping on the couch in another’s home, hungry, abused, neglected, pregnant, in gangs, on drugs, etc. When you can’t pick the students, teaching all the students is harder. It’s really a pretty simple concept.

                  What we’re saying is public school should be entirely secular, religious schools should get no government/taxpayer money whatsoever, and putting resources into public secular schools is a much greater good than putting them in schools that will teach children false things, which is the opposite of education. The best private religious schools charge comparable tuition to the best private secular schools. Money solves a lot of problems; the religious schools, too, get wealthy families whose children would do well pretty much no matter where they went to school and the resources to do a lot. Tuition at Trinity is $40,000+ a year; that’s more than most colleges. For that much money per child, any school would be amazing.

                • Spuddie

                  Then you can pay for it out of your own pocket. Religious indoctrination is not necessary for education. Its an option which people are willing to pay a premium for. It is not worthy of government support.

                  Trinity school in Manhattan has been non-sectarian since 1968. It is not a religious private school in the way you have suggested. Maybe you should have researched it better. Or better yet, used the example in a more honest manner instead of misrepresenting the school’s nature by conflating it with a faith-based religious school.

                  Religious studies at that school is generalized and not indoctrinative. Much different from the religious school programs you were thinking of. It embraces diversity of faiths and views. You would hate it.

                  You also have no right to attend it with tax money either.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Well, one thing that clearly hasn’t changed is the reaction from the religious bullies. It must be universal that they feel that they are being persecuted when they don’t get their way.

  • TomS

    A beautiful piece, full of wisdom.

  • Marshalll

    SNIP: “I think we as freethinkers must continually be conscious of why we
    believe what we believe. We think that evidence-based belief systems are
    difficult, but better and ultimately more powerful than faith-based
    beliefs.But attending this we must be aware that our our brains can fool us in
    dreams, hallucinations, hypnopompic/hypnogogic states between sleep and
    wakefulness, anecdotal tales, and via confirmation bias.”

    So you’re a material entity somehow “consicous” of itself and the entirely material world around it. This and everything else you describe is sure has no element of faith, you’re certain… If “our brains can fool us”, what about yours?

    “But a commitment to separation of church and state is even more
    important. This is about more than our personal brains, because it is
    social and political. If we do not have strict separation of government
    from religious pieties, no non-belief is safe.”

    A separation of theologies and atheologies is crucial because while religious pieties are a concern, even more so, arguably, are other pieities imposed by coercion by the State, as the 20th century demonstrates. Agreed?


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