Monday, June 17, 2013


June 17, 2013


The United States Supreme Court ruled 50 years ago today, June 17, 1963, that school sponsored Bible reading is unconstitutional.

The 8 to 1 ruling came in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp which challenged Bible reading over the school intercom as a violation of rights under the FIRST AMENDMENT* to the United States Constitution.

*The 1st Amendment's "Establishment Clause" reads...
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."  

Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 rejected arguments that the 1st Amendment was meant to forbid only governmental preference of one faith.

 United States Supreme Court Building
                    Washington, D.C.
          Photo by John White (2011)

Edward Schempp, a Unitarian Universalist living in Abington, Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit in District Court claiming a Pennsylvania state law requiring his child to hear and read parts of the Bible in public school violated his 1st Amendment rights.

The District Court ruled in favor of Schempp but the Abington School District filed an appeal.  In the end, the United States Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court.

Justice Tom Clark** wrote in regard to religious freedom...

"It has long been recognized that government must be neutral and while protecting all, must prefer none and disparage none."

Justice Tom C. Clark
Photo by Frank Wolfe (1967)
LBJ Library

**Thomas C. Clark (1899-1977) was born in Dallas, Texas and graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1922.  He served as US Attorney General from 1945 to 1949 and Associate Supreme Court Judge from 1949 to 1967.

Justice Clark was appointed to the high court by President Truman who later regretted his action.  Truman called it "my biggest mistake."  He was upset that Clark had voted to strike down his seizure of steel mills during a strike in 1952.

Justice Clark resigned from the Court in 1967 when LBJ appointed his son, Ramsey Clark, Attorney General.

The only dissenting vote in Abington v. Schempp came from Justice Potter Stewart*** who wrote...

"If religious exercises are held to be an impermissible activity in schools, religion is placed in an artificial and state-created disadvantage...and refusal to permit religious exercises thus is the establishment of a religion of secularism."

***Potter Stewart (1915-1985), appointed by President Eisenhower, served as associate judge of the Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981.  He was born in Jackson, Michigan and was a graduate of Yale University (1937) and Yale Law School (1941).  He served in WWII.  Justice Stewart is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

                        Justice Potter Stewart
                United States Supreme Court
             Library of Congress Image (1976)

The Rev. Billy Graham agreed with Justice Stewart and disagreed with the majority opinion of the court.  He said...

"80% of the American people want Bible reading and prayer in the schools.  Why should a majority be so severely penalized?"

The 1963 Supreme Court decision followed a decision in 1962 in the case of Engel v. Vitale where the Court ruled that...

"It is no part of the official business of government to compose official prayers for any group of American people to recite."

Justice Potter had also dissented in that decision.

President Kennedy's View on the 1962 Supreme Court Decision on Prayer in Schools

In response to the 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale that prayer in schools is unconstitutional, President John F. Kennedy was asked the following question at his news conference of June 27, 1962:

In the furor over the Supreme Court decision on prayer in schools....can you give us your opinion?

The President responded:

"I think...that we support Supreme Court decisions even when we may not agree with them.  In addition, we have....a very easy remedy, and that is to pray a good deal more at home....and....make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all of our children."


In his July and August 1963 press conferences in the aftermath of the Abington v. Schempp decision, President Kennedy made no comment about the decision nor was he asked to do so by the press.