MEDFORD, Mass. — His protest began a half-century ago, when Ellery Schempp opened the Quran during his high school’s mandatory Bible-reading time and silently scanned passages he was too nervous to actually read.
That minor rebellion led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed school-sponsored prayer.
Schempp’s act of civil disobedience in 1956 is back in the public eye with a new book Ellery’s Protest by New York University law professor Stephen Solomon, which examines the effect of his case amid continuing controversy over the separation of church and state.
Schempp, a genial 67-year-old, clearly relishes the renewed activism as he’s become a sought-after speaker for humanist groups and church and state separatists.
For most of his life, Schempp gave little thought to the school-prayer case, Abington School District v. Schempp, even as its impact rattled through the courts and culture. A physicist, Schempp had a busy career, two marriages and saw both the North and South Poles during extensive travel in which his legal legacy was an afterthought.
But his views have remained as controversial as they were when he was a teenager.
“I’m really dismayed that 50 years later, this is still a bit of an issue,” Schempp, an atheist, said in a recent interview at his home in Medford, just outside Boston. “There’s enough problems in the world. Does anyone seriously think that more prayer and more Bible reading is the answer to global problems, to political problems, to wars in Iraq?”
Clearly, many people do believe in prayer. The courts remain busy with cases brought by those who claim the state is either suppressing — or promoting — a faith.
In Delaware, for example, a Jewish family is suing a school district it claims is promoting Christianity with prayers at events such as school potlucks and graduation. Last year, a valedictorian from Nevada sued after school officials turned off the microphone while she spoke about Christ’s Crucifixion during graduation.
John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a legal group that often takes on religious cases and is representing the valedictorian, agrees public schools should not be sponsoring prayer and Bible reading. But he said the Schempp ruling has been abused by interest groups who are trying to stamp religion out of public life.
In the Schempp case, the Court said prayer and Bible reading in his school were religious exercises, and it was unconstitutional for a public school to require them.
The justices wrote: “The breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent and, in the words of Madison, ‘It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.’”
Whitehead compared the Schempp decision “to throwing a big brick in a small pond.”
“The rippling effect is still happening,” he said.
Schempp was trying to make a point, not legal history, when he brought the Muslim scriptures to Abington (Pa.) High School on Nov. 26, 1956.
He was raised in the Unitarian church, with its lack of dogma, and objected to the school’s “morning devotional,” in which a Bible passage was read and the Lord’s Prayer recited, because he viewed the practice as promoting beliefs he and others didn’t hold.
Schempp opened the Quran to show that there were other holy books. After he refused to stand for the Lord’s Prayer, his teacher called him aside, and he was sent out of the classroom.
That evening, Schempp wrote the American Civil Liberties Union to ask for help, and the case began its trip to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Schempp was headed to Tufts University and a busy academic life, and a new passion for climbing developed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
In June 1963, Schempp heard the news of the Supreme Court decision on the car radio while honeymooning with his first wife in South Dakota. About 1,000 letters soon arrived at his parents’ house — some supportive, others filled with expletives and even smeared with excrement.
But the fervor died down after about six months. Though the decision bore his name, Schempp said the anger over the ruling was generally directed at the fervent atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose similar case was joined with his in the Supreme Court decision.
“Many years of my life went by in which I would rarely think of it,” he said.
Schempp earned his doctorate in physics at Brown University. He worked as a professor and researched nuclear waste disposal and technology that would become part of the fiberoptics revolution. He taught in Europe, then in 1980, returned to the United States, eventually working with early MRI technology. By the early 2000s, he was consulting and moving toward semiretirement in Medford. He now gives talks on his early defense of civil liberties about once a month.
Schempp acknowledges his case and those that followed have led to some excesses by those seeking to hold the church-state divide. But overall, he thinks its principles are vitally important to preserve, and he’s happy to use whatever fame he has to do that.
“Keeping the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and that crowd at bay as best we can is important,” Schempp said. “It’s tremendous fun.”