Ellery Schempp, PhD

Ellery Schempp

 

Ellery Schempp is best known as the "litigant" from the Abington School District v. Schempp Supreme Court case of 1963, which found that public school-mandated Bible readings were unconstitutional. He is the 1996 recipient of the Religious Liberty Award from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the 2005 recipient of the Religious Liberty Award from the American Humanist Association. He is a strong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a popular speaker at meetings of humanists, Unitarian Universalists and groups focusing on the separation of religion and government.

Pennsylvania law required that "At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian." In 1956, Schempp, a student at Abington High School, brought a Qur'an to homeroom and read from it as a protest against the policy and the related practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer. He was sent to the principal's office and, with the assistance of his parents and the ACLU, sued the school. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was decided in his favor five years after Schempp's high school graduation.

Despite letters of "disrecommendation" written by Abington High's principal to every college Schempp applied to, Schempp went on to earn B.S. degrees in physics and geology from Tufts University and a Ph.D. in physics from Brown University. His doctoral research was in using nuclear magnetic resonance as a way of exploring chemical bonds, which contributed to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). In 2002, Abington High School elected him to its hall of fame for his achievements in physics, with no mention of his role in Abington. Schempp began his acceptance speech, "I never thought they'd invite me back here."

Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray vs. Curlett, as joined with Madalyn Murray's case in Maryland, is viewed as a landmark First Amendment case. The Schempp case followed from the pioneering cases of McCollum (1948), Torcaso (1961), and Engel (1962). It articulated the Court's first test for evaluating Establishment Clause questions:

...there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion.

The Abington ruling was subsequently used as a basis in other Supreme Court cases regarding the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, such as Lee vs. Weisman, Lemon, and others. The decision was unpopular [Senator Eastland from Mississippi said infamously: "The Supreme Court has put the niggers in and thrown the Bible out"] and a year later the House of Representatives considered more than 145 constitutional amendments to reverse it. However, the National Council of Christian Churches came to say that such an amendment was unnecessary and that separation of church and state was a wise protection for religious groups.

Schempp is an avid outdoor adventurer whose explorations have encompassed Antarctica, the Arctic, the Himalayas and New England. In 1977, he was a member of the first American expedition to attempt to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, the world's ninth highest peak.

Recalling his notoriety in the field of civil liberties, Schempp has written, "I think I am called a 'political activist.' Not sure I agree. All I wanted was to keep Bible-reading out of schools. I confess to being a liberal. I am an opponent of fundamentalism in all its guises; I am an opponent of 'creationism' and 'intelligent design.' And a lover of our Universe."

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