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Religion in the Schools: Debate Never Falters

December 13, 2007 By:
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Attorney Ted Mann (left) reunites with Ellery Schempp (right) on Dec. 6 in Abington. They were joined by author Stephen D. Solomon. Photos by Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg

It was the morning of Nov. 26, 1956. Students at Abington High School filed into the building and, after a stop at their lockers, headed directly to their homeroom classes. During the homeroom period every day, a student would recite 10 verses from the King James version of the Bible over the loudspeaker for all to hear. A recitation of the Lord's Prayer followed.

At the time, such recitations were required by law in Pennsylvania and many other states.

Ellery Schempp, then a 16-year-old straight-"A" student at Abington, chose not to listen to the prayers that particular day. Instead, he placed a copy of the Koran that he'd brought in from home squarely on his desk, and began to read to himself from it.

Schempp's pre-planned act of civil disobedience sent the 11th-grader to the principal's office -- then into the history books.

Schempp and his family sued the school district in a landmark case that worked its way to the top of the judicial system. The 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1963's Abington School District v. Schempp banned school-directed recitations of the Lord's Prayer and readings of Bible passages as part of devotional exercises in public schools.

On Dec. 6, Schempp, now 67, was reunited for the first time in 51 years with Theodore Mann, the attorney who drafted the complaint for the American Civil Liberties Union on the student's behalf. The two major players were joined for a panel discussion by New York University Professor Stephen D. Solomon, author of the new book, Ellery's Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer.

"I didn't see him again until right now," said Mann of reuniting with Schempp, though they spoke on the phone a few weeks ago. "It's nice to get together with him again."

The recent panel discussion recounted Schempp's journey to the Supreme Court and its aftermath, as well as the backlash against the decision that continues to this day.

The gathering was moderated by Jewish Social Policy Action Network president Jeffrey Pasek. JSPAN sponsored the reunion, which was held at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. More than 70 people gathered to hear Schempp recount his protest and his reasoning behind it.

'Distortion of the Constitution'

"I wanted to show the Holy Bible wasn't the only scripture in the land," explained Schempp of his actions years earlier.

It was a time of change in the United States, he said, and even as a teenager, he felt that using the Bible to seemingly promote one religion over another seemed to him "a distortion of the Constitution."

Solomon explained that some cases and issues aren't definitively resolved even after a Supreme Court decision. Controversial ones -- for example, the ongoing debate over abortion -- have continued to generate tension and anger well past their rulings.

He added that the Schempp case far from ended the debate over school prayer.

"This issue is still very much with us," noted Solomon, citing several recent cases, including that of a football coach in New Jersey who kneeled in prayer with his students before games.

Schools are not religion-free zones, he pointed out. He questioned, for example, how the history of Europe could be analyzed in class without ever mentioning the influence of religion. It's how the information is presented that's at issue, said Solomon, since sectarian religious content needs to be filtered out of the material.

Still, a student can pray just before a math test, he quipped; it's just that "the state can't be involved."

It remains to be seen, added Mann, how current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito will argue over religion in the coming years.

At the end of the discussion, Pasek posed one last question: "Ellery, would you do it again?"

"Absolutely," came the answer, to a round of applause.

'A Marketplace of Ideas'

On the very same day as the Schempp-Mann reunion, students met at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to debate religious expression with their peers from across the country in a program called "The Exchange: A Marketplace of Student Ideas." Participants from five area schools were joined by students from four other states via Internet2 videoconferencing.

The event was hosted by MTV news correspondent SuChin Pak and featured Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington,Va.

Haynes helped the group explore the topic of religious expression, and whether or not students should be allowed to freely express their religion in American schools.

"The United States is the most religiously diverse place in the world," he said, noting that religion lies at the root of many conflicts around the world today.

More than 100 students discussed the issue for two hours. Mention of the Schempp case came up in conversation several times by 12th-graders from an advanced-placement government class at Abington High School who were present for the program.

Haynes explained that the Schempp case was "a very important decision" that protects people from a state-imposed religion.

In the same breath, he said that there is a gray area when it comes to religion in the schools. As students asked him about individual instances from their own experiences and from well-publicized cases throughout the country, the only answer he effectively could give them was that every case is different, and each depends on specific circumstances.

Haynes also said that while a student can quietly pray before eating her lunch, he or she can't make a public announcement inviting the entire lunchroom to join her. Nor can students harass or disrupt the learning process by interjecting a religious message on school grounds.

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