Discovering the Man Behind a Boy's Protest In 1956, 16-year-old Pennsylvania schoolboy Ellery Schempp decided to protest his public school's mandatory prayer and Bible-reading period by reading silently from the Koran. He was ejected from class and then sued the school district. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court.
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Discovering the Man Behind a Boy's Protest

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Discovering the Man Behind a Boy's Protest

Discovering the Man Behind a Boy's Protest

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Ellery Schempp didn't know he was firing an opening shot in the culture wars, but he knew what he was doing on that November day in 1956. It was time for Ellery's high school class to read 10 verses from the Bible. Ellery refused. Instead, he read silently from the Koran. That sparked a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1963, the court outlawed school-sponsored prayer.

The case is the subject of a new book, "Ellery's Protest." Author Stephen Solomon is in our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Solomon.

Mr. STEPHEN SOLOMON (Author, "Ellery's Protest"): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: And Ellery Schempp is in member station WBUR in Boston. Mr. Schempp, welcome to the program to you as well.

Dr. ELLERY SCHEMPP (Physicist and Activist): It's nice to be with you.

HANSEN: Mr. Solomon, let me start with you. How common was prayer in the public schools in 1956?

Mr. SOLOMON: In Pennsylvania, it was universal because there was a state law that required 10 verses of the Bible to be read. In the United States, about 40 percent of the school districts had Bible reading.

HANSEN: Mr. Schempp, why did you do what you did?

Mr. SCHEMPP: Well, I was concerned that this was an infringement of the first amendment's clause that says that there shall be no establishment of religion. And it seemed to me that this was a very obvious violation of favored principle of separation of church and state. Of course the Bible was also a symbol of authority, the way it was used in the schools. And I guess there was a healthy dose of teenage rebellion.

HANSEN: You were 16 years old.


HANSEN: If your protest was against the separation of church and state essentially, no prayers in the public schools, why did you use the Koran? What was the significance of that?

Mr. SCHEMPP: Oh, I merely wanted to show that there were other holy books besides the Bible. The Koran was purely by accident because it was available, otherwise it would've been a Hindu holy scripture.

HANSEN: How fast was your heart beating when you were reading it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHEMPP: Obviously I was so nervous and I can't remember a word from what I might have scanned in the Koran. And I did not stand for the "Lord's Prayer." And that's what, I guess, made my statement more obvious.

HANSEN: Well, what happened to you after your act of disobedience?

Mr. SCHEMPP: Well, the teacher, initially, of course was enormously puzzled. But I said that I had I thought about this and as a matter of religious conscience, I couldn't participate any longer. He sent me to the school disciplinarian. And after some discussion, he sent me to the school guidance counselor. They were very curious as to whether or not they had a disturbed young man on their hands.

HANSEN: Well, that was the beginning of a very long journey of - right up into the Supreme Court. And Stephen Solomon - we actually have excerpts from the arguments before the Supreme Court. Philip Ward represented the School District in the state of Pennsylvania. And he argued that the reading of 10 verses from the Bible is acceptable because it is teaching morality, not religion. And this is a tape of Chief Justice Earl Warren challenging the attorney.

Mr. EARL WARREN (14th Chief Justice, United States Supreme Court): So for all the state (unintelligible) there shall be one hour of instruction in moral. And during that hour instruction, nothing shall be done except to read the Bible to the students and all must attend except those whose parents object to it. Do you think that would be acceptable also?

Mr. SCHEMPP: I think, as the case before us now of 10 verses is acceptable. I think I agree with you, Chief Justice, it could become so bad that you couldn't - reasonable man couldn't say they are teaching morality. They would have to say they are doing nothing but using the Bible to indoctrinate those children with religion.

HANSEN: Stephen Solomon, talk about the point that Chief Justice Warren was making there.

Mr. SOLOMON: Chief Justice Warren was really concerned about how you draw any limits around the devotional activities that were going on. If you had a five-minute devotional activity at the beginning of the school day, how would you keep that from becoming a half-hour activity or a one-hour activity? If you had a prayer and bible reading, could you expand that, for example, to include other devotional activities that made it more like a religious service? These were very troubling questions and if the justices were going to allow prayer and bible reading, they had to find some way to limits around it, if possible.

HANSEN: We also have some tape of the arguments that Henry Sawyer presented. Henry Sawyer represented the Schempps. And he argued that state-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional and then Justice Potter Stewart challenged Sawyer. Justice Stewart said, imagine that the students themselves vote overwhelmingly to being their day by having one of them read 10 verses from the bible.

Mr. POTTER STEWART (United States Department of Justice): Isn't it a gross interference with the free exercise of the religion of those, in my imaginary case, those 98 percent of the student body who say our religious beliefs tell us that this is what we want to do?

Mr. HENRY SAWYER (Attorney of Ellery Schempp): They have a right to do it, Your Honor. But they haven't got a right to get the state to help them.

HANSEN: Stephen Solomon, that sentence, they haven't got the right to get the state to help them. The justice was arguing that the first amendment protects the free exercise of religion including school prayer. Why did this argument then find so little traction?

Mr. SOLOMON: It's already been found little traction because the exercises in school, the Bible reading and the prayer, were clearly religious activities. They were devotional activities. The kinds of things that you do in church or synagogue. And the state was in fact, by law, requiring that this exercise be taking place. And the state, therefore, was endorsing or supporting religion in a way that violated the first amendment.

HANSEN: The justice voted 8-1 to order the end of bible reading and recitation of the "Lord's Prayer" in Public Schools. What were the deliberations like?

Mr. SOLOMON: This was not a difficult case for the justice to decide. There were five liberal justices on the court at that time, all five of them voted to remove prayers and Bible reading from the schools. And now the four conservatives, three - including Justice John Marshal Harlan who was the conservative intellectual leader at the court - three of the four conservatives also agreed with majority to remove the devotional activities.

The issue became a lot more complicated later even though it was an 8-1 decision, especially in the last 15 or 20 years with the rise of the religious right, you have a lot of political agitation for a prayer, for the teaching of intelligent design, for the teaching of creationism, the use of Bibles in the classroom, the posting of the Ten Commandments. So in many ways, the argument has become a more complicated and a much more expanded.

HANSEN: Ellery Schempp, what were the repercussions immediately in your hometown, in your neighborhood, in your school?

Dr. SCHEMPP: Well, we had a fairly decent little community in Abington and there was not very much really nasty stuff. My brother and sister were roughed up a little bit. And my sister was - felt - she was only 11 or 12 at the time and felt very embarrassed to be singled out this way.

Our family got about 5,000 letters and about one-third were supportive and even from a fairly large number of Christians, actually, who took the Bible's injunction in Matthew 6, we took that quite seriously about praying in private. About one-third were disagreements but reasonable ones. And then, of course, the remaining one-third were hateful and depurative.

HANSEN: You teach First Amendment Law at New York University now, Mr. Solomon?

Mr. SOLOMON: Yes, in the department of journalism.

HANSEN: So what's the class discussion like when you teach your students the case of Ellery Schempp?

Mr. SOLOMON: You know, these are students, so they're - you know, they're in their, you know, 18, maybe to 25 and so they look at this case in ways that are sometimes surprising to adults who arguing about this today. One of the things that the students talk about is what if - what if the prayer and Bible reading came back to the schools? What prayers would you actually use? Whose prayers? What version of the Bible: The Protestant Bible or the Catholic Bible or the Jewish Bible or would you use the Koran?

And then the discussion goes to the idea that what kind of conflict would this course in local communities? And would school board elections be fraught with our religious overtones rather than just arguments over curriculum and other kinds of educational activities? So students are very concerned about that because they've just come out of high schools and they understand that these are very serious issues that would affect them.

HANSEN: Ellery Schempp, how important a part has this case been in your life during the past 50 years?

Dr. SCHEMPP: Well, you know, it's the lawyers that did all the work and arguing the case and for me, I was pursuing a career in science. I studied physics and was a physics professor and then I worked in the industry and did what was called at that time solid-state physics. I wound up working with General Electric for several years on MRI systems and for many, many years in which I hardly thought about it except when other cases somewhat related to what came before the court.

But in the last five or seven years and after I've sort of retired from my science career, I've been spending a lot more time talking about it, being asked to talk about it.

HANSEN: Could you have imagined on that November day when you were 16 that what you were doing then would still be resonating some 50 years later?

Dr. SCHEMPP: It's a little dismaying to find that that is the case. I would have thought that we could have moved on from there. But I do think it was a triumph of our system of an independent traditional system and I was very pleased that an average family could bring a case and it could be resolved.

HANSEN: Stephen Solomon is the author of "Ellery's Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle Over School Prayer." He joined us from our New York bureau.

Thank you for your time.

Mr. SOLOMON: Thank you very much.

HANSEN: Ellery Schempp refused to participate in the mandatory Bible reading exercise at his Pennsylvania high school in 1956. His case led to the Supreme Court ruling that declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional. Ellery Schempp joined us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston.

Thank you for your time.

Dr. SCHEMPP: It was a pleasure to be here.

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