Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203; 83 S. Ct. 1560;10 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1963)

Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203; 83 S. Ct. 1560;10 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1963)

Facts—Pennsylvania by statute required that at least ten verses from the Bible should be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child could be excused from attending the Bible reading upon written request of his parent or guardian. The Schempp family, members of the Unitarian church, brought suit to enjoin enforcement of the statute. In a companion case (Murray v. Curlett) Mrs. Murray and her son, professed atheists, brought similar action against a similar situation in Baltimore, which also permitted recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Question—Does the requirement of Bible reading and/or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment?


ReasonsJ. Clark (8–1). The establishment clause withdrew all legislative power respecting religious belief or the expression thereof. “The test may be stated as follows: What are the purpose and the primary effect of the enactment? If either is the advancement of inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the Constitution . . . in both cases the laws require religious exercises and such exercises are being conducted in direct violation of the rights of the appellees and petitioners. Nor are these required exercises mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the establishment clause.”

J. Stewart argued in dissent that the Court had adopted an unnecessarily narrow view of the separation of church and state that in fact interfered with the free exercise of religion.

NoteMurray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) reached the same conclusion as Abington. The Court has continued its balancing act, as seen in Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), in which the Court banned posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms, and Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981), which opened up state university classrooms on First Amendment grounds for student religious groups.

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