Abington Township School District v. Schempp 374 U.S. 203 (1963)

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A Pennsylvania statute required that at least ten verses from the Holy Bible be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school day. A child might be excused from this exercise upon the written request of his parents or guardian.

In engel v. vitale (1962) the school prayer held unconstitutional had been written by state officials. The question in Schempp was whether this made a difference—there being no claim that Pennsylvania was implicated in the authorship of the holy scripture.

Justice tom c. clark concluded that the Pennsylvania exercise suffered from an establishment-clause infirmity every bit as grave as that afflicting New York's prayer. Clark's opinion in Schempp was the first strict separationist opinion of the Court not written by Justice hugo l. black, and Clark formulated a test for establishment clause validity with a precision that had eluded Black. A state program touching upon religion or religious institutions must have a valid secular purpose and must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. The Pennsylvania Bible reading program failed the test on both counts.

Justices william o. douglas and william j. brennan concurred separately in opinions reflecting an even stricter separationism than Clark's. Justice arthur j. goldberg also filed a brief concurring opinion.

Justice potter stewart dissented, as he had in Engel, arguing that religious exercises as part of public ceremonies were permissible so long as children were not coerced to participate.

Schempp, along with Murray v. Curlett (decided the same day), settled whatever lingering question there may have been about the constitutionality of religion in public schools.

Richard E. Morgan

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Abington Township School District v. Schempp 374 U.S. 203 (1963)

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