It’s always nice to hear from Ellery Schempp. As a 16-year-old, Ellery kick-started what would become Abington v. Schempp, which ultimately outlawed mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools. November 26 marked the 50th anniversary of the complaint that Ellery sent to the ACLU in Philadelphia. Here are his recollections.
My letter to the ACLU in 1956 that resulted in the Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963 was found by Professor Steven Solomon at NYU in the National Archives, apparently because all the documents in the District Court were sent there.
My letter would have been totally forgotten, but it was put in evidence in a contention about whether the Schempps had standing and whether the ACLU had put us up to it (the ACLU was accused of instigating, which, of course, was false).
I have personal memory of when I typed this out on my Dad’s typewriter in our garage-office using two fingers to type it. I was just past my 16th birthday then. Addressed to the ACLU of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
November 26, 1956
As a student in my junior year at Abington Senior High School, I would very greatly appreciate any information that you might send regarding possible Union action and/or aid in testing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania law which arbitrarily (and seemingly unrighteously and unconstitutionally) compels the Bible to be read in our public school system. I thank you for any help you might offer in freeing American youth in Pennsylvania from this gross violation of their religious rights as guaranteed in the first and foremost Amendment in our United States’ Constitution.
Ellery F. Schempp
It does not mention that I enclosed a $10 bill (1956 money). This turned out to be highly significant. That is another story.
I am embarrassed to note that my letter was turgid and pretentious. I was 16 years old then. I have since learned to write shorter sentences—much to the credit of my high school English teacher, Allan Glatthorn, who unknowingly encouraged me by making thinking respectable.
Of course, it was vital that I had parents who knew about the ACLU and were supportive and essential that our family had my younger brother Roger and sister Donna to maintain standing.
I think that the results of the recent elections significantly strengthen separation of church and state and secular science education.
The new leadership in the House and Senate promises to focus on running the government instead of having a faith-based agenda of faux issues promoted by aspiring theocrats. We can look toward refreshing political dialogs in terms of what makes for good policies for our society without having “true believers” who insist that they have God’s email address and “know for certain” about “righteousness”.
Of the many sins of the past leadership, perhaps their greatest one was to proselytize in wrapping themselves in the cloak of “godliness”— to give them claim to own patriotism. “Faith-belief” is no longer accepted as excusing incompetence in public affairs. This is a very significant shift in public opinion.
It is very encouraging that a goodly number of “intelligent design” (ID) proponents lost handsomely. These include DeVos for governor in Michigan; Blackwell for governor in Ohio; Santorum for Senator in Pennsylvania; Katherine Harris for Senator in Florida (who infamously stated that “only Christians can be trusted to be in government”); Steele for Senator in Maryland. In Kansas, the Board of Education was reclaimed from creationists by reality-based members to make a 6-4 majority (although two of the worst creationists won); in Ohio, in elections for the Board of Education creationists and IDiots lost.
In our past, we have had three eras of religious and moralistic fervor, called by historians the “Great Awakenings”. These were times of religious demagoguery when priests and pastors attempted to capture the power of government to promote their views (and not incidentally, their prerogatives). We have been in a period of a “fourth awakening” of religiosity, which I call the “Great Darkening”, since about 1995. The election shows that the pendulum always swings, and the evangelico-politico darkening is waning.
I think the climate is noticeably better for preservation of separation of church and state after the elections. This does not mean that we can give up on vigilance. The temptation to equate personal faith and public display of piety remains. The temptation to equate a faith in a god with the good of the country remains. Democrats are not immune from this.
We are seeing the end of the Great Darkening. The seduction of public display of piety remains. The emerging political leadership have to be encouraged to affirm First Amendment clauses and sound science.