Catching up with Ellery Schempp of Abington v. Schempp

As a result of the Dover decision, we’ve been receiving a lot of correspondence and congratulations from across the country. A long-time friend of the ACLU of PA, Ellery Schempp, called last week to offer his congratulations. As you legal scholars may know, Ellery’s family took on the Abington School District in the late 1950s when Ellery was in 11th grade. At issue was the reading of Bible verses in public schools, as mandated by Pennsylvania law, and the family was ultimately successful before the United States Supreme Court in 1963, after Ellery had graduated and while his sister and brother were still in school. The Court voted 8-1 in favor of the Schempps.

Abington v. Schempp is now listed as one of the ACLU’s 100 Greatest Hits.

We took the opportunity to talk with Ellery about the Dover case and his own experience as an original plaintiff in his family’s case. Now 65-years-old and living in a suburb of Boston, it was apparent that Ellery is passionate about the issue of religious liberty and that he had followed the Dover case closely.

“It’s a great decision,” he said. “Judge Jones wrote it beautifully and got to the heart of the issue.

“I was just giddy for days afterwards,” he said with a laugh.

A lack of knowledge of both government and science seems to be at the heart of the struggle over evolution and the role of religion in schools and government. Ellery noted that some public schools in Massachusetts no longer require civics as part of the social studies curriculum.

“People are very uneducated on these matters,” he said. “They’re not very familiar with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“If they knew the science of evolution, the desire for intelligent design would diminish. It all fits together to create an amazingly beautiful picture of how the planet formed.”

Ellery’s professional life included time as a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, a position with the Department of Energy working on nuclear waste, and a position as a consultant on energy technology. One of his clients was the government of New Zealand.

As high profile plaintiffs in a high profile case, Ellery feels that the Dover plaintiffs have already been through the worst of the storm.

“They’ve probably received letters,” he said. “Some will be supportive, some will be civil, and some will be nasty.

“The worst of it will have passed by now.”

42 years of hindsight have reinforced Ellery’s feelings about his family’s case. “It was the right decision. It was good for the nation,” he said. “As we’ve become more diverse, it’s made the nation stronger.”

Ellery also expressed his concern about the state of the union on this issue. “In the late ’50s, we were more civil. The country is more polarized than it was. I find that disturbing.”

We spent some time discussing the movement of some evangelical Christians to inject their brand of religion into government. Ellery expressed his belief that this movement has changed since the 1950s.

“They had their beliefs and went about their lives,” he said. “There is now a desire for public piety.”

We finished the conversation by bringing it back to Dover. Ellery is confident that while it may not completely disappear, the intelligent design movement will struggle after the Dover decision.

“The intelligent design movement has internal struggles,” he said. “We see Rick Santorum has backed away from his support. These fissures will become more pronounced. I’m hopeful the intelligent design movement will wane.”

He also stated that conservatives are debating each other over ID, which is evident on the internet and in the press. “It’s quite heartwarming to see conservatives arguing vigorously for evolution,” he said. “There’s a significant number of politically and socially conservative Republicans who vigorously oppose teaching ID in schools. They think it’s making the conservative movement look foolish.”

Andy in Harrisburg

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