School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp

PETITIONER: School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania
RESPONDENT: Edward Lewis Schempp
LOCATION: Abington High School

DOCKET NO.: 142
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 374 US 203 (1963)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 1963 / Feb 28, 1963
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1963

Facts of the case

The Abington case concerns Bible-reading in Pennsylvania public schools. At the beginning of the school day, students who attended public schools in the state of Pennsylvania were required to read at least ten verses from the Bible. After completing these readings, school authorities required all Abington Township students to recite the Lord's Prayer. Students could be excluded from these exercises by a written note from their parents to the school. In a related case -- Murray v. Curlett -- a Baltimore statute required Bible-reading or the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at open exercises in public schools. Murray and his mother, professed atheists -- challenged the prayer requirement.

Question

Did the Pennsylvania law and Abington's policy, requiring public school students to participate in classroom religious exercises, violate the religious freedom of students as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument, Part 2: Murray v. Curlett - February 27, 1963 (119) in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument, Part 1: School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp - February 27, 1963 (142) in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument, Part 2: School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp - February 28, 1963 (142) in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument, Part 1: Murray v. Curlett - February 27, 1963 (119) in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp

Earl Warren:

Number 119, William J. Murray III et al., versus John Curlett et al.

Mr. Kerpelman.

Leonard J. Kerpelman:

Mr. Chief Justice, Your Honors, this Lord's Prayer and Bible reading case, which is before the Court today, has perhaps a unique importance for all of us.

The reason is that all of us have certainly at some time, been concerned with philosophical meanings attached to our existence here, see the significance of that existence.

And, all of us have no doubt, directed ourselves to resolution of questions of the goals and means and functions of mankind and all of us have thought and contemplated and no doubt prayed.

Such contemplation and thought, it is in the very nature of man to perform, sapient man, wondering, inquiring man.

And the nature of man being what it is, man has developed over the long centuries complex and subtle systems of philosophy and out of these systems, and out of the historical knowledge and out of faith, man has constructed complex and subtle systems of religious belief.

And out of these systems of religious belief, man has constructed doctrine.

At the same time, extending back through painful ages, man has concurrently developed differing and no less subtle and no less complex systems of government based at different times and different places on different principles.

Perhaps, the noblest of all of these systems of government is that system embodied in the enlightened and libertarian Constitution, including the Bill of Rights of the United States of America.

In fact, the principles embodied in this document are probably so noble and so ennobling that without doubt, many of us experience some difficulty in daily, and drawing ourselves up to the perpetual measure of their standards.

One of these standards, of course, set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as interpreted by this Court, is the principle that the church and the state in this country shall remain separate and apart and that in fact, there shall be a wall of separation between them which shall be maintained high and impregnable.

Potter Stewart:

I read the First Amendment.

I had never read that language in it.

What's it say?

What's the First Amendment say in this subject?

Leonard J. Kerpelman:

That Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, Mr. Justice.

At any rate, it seems that my conclusion, I respectfully say, Mr. Justice, is that the First Amendment has been interpreted to mean that government shall not sponsor or favor any one religion or religion in general and shall -- and that religion shall not interpose itself in matters of Government.

Potter Stewart:

But here, you have your Fourteenth Amendment case, don't you?

Leonard J. Kerpelman:

Yes, Your Honor.

The First Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, Cantwell versus Connecticut and that line of cases.

This particular case concerns a rule of the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City which is found at page 4 of the petitioner's brief and it's very short, I'll perhaps read it to the Court.

“Opening exercises,” this is a rule drawn under the administrative powers of the local School Board, and this rule has been in existence, I believe, since about 1905.

“Opening exercises, each school, either collectively or in classes, shall be opened by the reading with that comment of a chapter in the Holy Bible and/or the use of the Lord's Prayer.

The Douay version may be used by those pupils who prefer it.”

This rule, before the advent of this case was amended as follows.

“Any child shall be excused from participating in the opening exercises or from attending the opening exercises upon the written request of his parent or guardian.”

If Your Honors please, I feel that the reason for the First Amendment interpretation having been at some time stated to have erected a wall between church and state is clear.

It stretches back as far back as the history of governments, and particularly as far back as the history of religions themselves.

The cruel and arid features of this history were alluded to in Engel.