Celebrating 50 Years of Religious Freedom in Public Schools

Heather Greene —  June 16, 2013 — 18 Comments

Before I begin this week’s topic, I would like to acknowledge that today is Father’s Day.  As with Motherhood, becoming a father is transformative and the beginning of a life-long journey.  A very happy Father’s Day to all that walk that path offering a piece of themselves to the next generation.

Courtesy of Flickr's fruity monkey

Courtesy of Flickr’s fruity monkey

Now back to our regularly scheduled program….

Tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of the SCOTUS ruling on the Abington School District, Pennsylvania vs.Schempp case.  What’s that?  This 1963 Supreme Court case is considered to be a major historical marker in the on-going struggle to affirm religious equality within American public schools. The Schempp ruling was an indicator of a coming cultural revolution and an acknowledgement of America’s diverse religious tapestry.

In 1956 Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old student at Abington High School, became increasingly frustrated with the school and state policy that required students to read daily Bible passages in home room.  Ellery and his family were Unitarian Universalists and minorities in their Pennsylvania community.  The Bible readings conflicted with their personal religious beliefs.

Ellery Schempp

Ellery Schempp

One day in protest Ellery stood up and read from the Qur’an.  He was immediately sent to the Principal’s office and disciplined. But the story doesn’t end there.  With the help of his father and the ACLU of Pennsylvania (then Philadelphia), Ellery sued the Abington school district. The case worked its way up through the courts.  It was eventually merged with another similar and more famous case involving the controversial Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an Atheist activist and founder of American Atheists.

Finally, the Schempp case reached the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).  On June 17, 1963 the Court declared it unconstitutional for public schools to require mandatory Bible recitation and other similar religious activities:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents. (from Cornell Law School)

Pennsylvania and several other states had to immediately “scrap” the laws that mandated student participation in religious recitation activities.

The Schempp case set a legal and cultural precedent that upended the widely-accepted place of religion in public education. But it was not the first case of its kind. In an interview with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, First Amendment Scholar Steven K. Green said:

…as we mark the anniversary of these seminal decisions, we should acknowledge that they were not cases of first instance; rather, they built on a long-developing body of jurisprudence that was affirming the centrality of religious equality and church-state separation to our nation’s democratic system. 

In the brief interview, Green discusses America’s historical battle for religious equality within public education. The earliest cases were brought to trial by Catholics who didn’t want their children reading Protestant-based Bible passages or prayers.  In 1869, Ohio became the very first state to officially declare unconstitutional the practice of forced Bible recitation in public schools.

As the American population became more religiously diverse, the issue evolved beyond a Catholic- Protestant polarity. The Schempp case exposed the reality of religious diversity in the United States and opened up a new dialog concerning the separation of church and state.  And it did so as the country began to experience a dramatic social change.

Abington To Appeal Newspaper

Since the 1963 ruling there have been countless protests, backlash and legal maneuvers on all levels to bring school-sponsored prayer back into the classroom.  In the early 1980s former President Ronald Reagan proposed a new constitutional amendment that would officially allow voluntary public school prayer.  It failed to pass. Green says:

So long as lawmakers believe they can gain mileage by manipulating the school prayer issue, then there will be no end to prayer and Bible reading proposals. These efforts are cynical as they play on fears and misperceptions among religious conservatives about the Supreme Court’s holdings. Students enjoy many freedoms of religious expression in schools, but enforced religiosity is not a cure for society’s ills.

Here at The Wild Hunt we have and will continue to report on any such school cases that directly involve Pagans and Heathens (e.g. the Buncombe County situation in 2012).  However, all such cases are pertinent to all parents with school-age kids.  Legislative policies affect every child – not just the one whose parents spoke up.  What is going on in my school district?  What are my state’s policies on religion in public school?  Rev. Selena Fox, co-founder of Lady Liberty League, once said, “Having liberty and justice for all in this country may be in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is not an automatic reality.”

Here are three very recent related cases:

  1. On June 1st in Liberty, South Carolina, Roy Costner IV paused his prepared and approved high school valedictorian speech to recite The Lord’s Prayer.  He told the media that “This is what God wanted me to do.” The event was not school-sponsored. Therefore no disciplinary action is being taken against Roy or the school.
  2. On June 13th Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law the so-called “Merry Christmas” Bill (H.B. 308).  It protects the free expression of religion, through symbols or holiday greetings, regardless of faith within public school settings. To date the new law has provoked little opposition.  The ACLU of Texas has declined to comment.
  3. On June 13th Americans United attorneys sent a letter to an Ohio school district warning them to keep creationism out of the school system. The Springboro district has planned to introduce controversial subjects such as global warming, gun rights, pro-life vs. abortion, and creationism vs. evolution.  Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United said, “Any public school contemplating teaching creationism might as well just hang up a giant banner that reads “Sue Us Now.”

There are many challenges out there and many that have yet to be addressed. Is it constitutional for religious organizations to hold services in school buildings on the weekends?  What about school vouchers and the wording of the “Pledge of Allegiance”?  Can religious clubs advertise and hold functions during school operating hours?  Is it possible to teach religion historically in a secular format without crossing the constitutional line? These are some of the questions that pop up time after time.

As a way of honoring the 1963 SCOTUS decision, Pennsylvania’s legislature has declared June “Public School Religious Freedom Month.”  While you go about your day tomorrow, take a moment to reflect on religious freedom in public education and the importance of the Establishment Clause in your own life.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  mksfly

Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s mksfly

The Schempp ruling paved the way for Pagans and Heathens to be able speak out and protect the rights of their growing children. It allowed for the birth and growth of groups like the Lady Liberty League who use their resources to protect the religious freedoms of Pagan children within the public school systems.  Today our children are not forced to read The Lord’s Prayer.  But perhaps more importantly, we can readily recognize the problem when and if it occurs and we have the language and backing of SCOTUS when we say “That’s wrong.”

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.