Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1963)

Bible Reading and the Lord's Prayer in Public Schools

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Do public school officials have the authority to pick a particular version or translation of the Christian Bible and have children read passages from that Bible every day? There was a time when such practices occurred in many school districts across the country but they were challenged alongside school prayers and ultimately the Supreme Court found the tradition to be unconstitutional. Schools cannot pick Bibles to be read or recommend that Bibles be read.

Fast Facts: Abington School District v. Schempp

  • Case Argued: February 27—28, 1963
  • Decision Issued: June 17, 1963
  • Petitioner: School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania
  • Respondent:  Edward Lewis Schempp
  • Key Question: Did a Pennsylvania law requiring public school students to participate in religious exercises violate their religious rights as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, White, Brennan, and Goldberg
  • Dissenting: Justice Stewart
  • Ruling: Under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, public schools cannot sponsor Bible readings or recitations of the Lord’s Prayer. Laws requiring participation in religious exercises directly violated the First Amendment. 

Background Information

Both Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett dealt with state-approved reading of Bible passages before classes in public schools. Schempp was brought to trial by a religious family who had contacted the ACLU. The Schempps challenged a Pennsylvania law which stated that:

...at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon written request of his parent or guardian.

This was disallowed by a federal district court.

Murray was brought to trial by an atheist: Madalyn Murray (later O'Hair), who was working on behalf of her sons, William and Garth. Murray challenged a Baltimore statute that provided for the "reading, without comment, of a chapter of the Holy Bible and/or of the Lord's Prayer" before the start of classes. This statute was upheld by both a state court and the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Court Decision

Arguments for both cases were heard on the 27th and 28th of February, 1963. On the 17th of June, 1963, the Court ruled 8-1 against of allowing the reciting of the Bible verses and the Lord's Prayer.

Justice Clark wrote at length in his majority opinion about the history and importance of religion in America, but his conclusion was that the Constitution forbids any establishment of religion, that prayer is a form of religion, and that hence state-sponsored or mandated Bible reading in public schools cannot be allowed.

For the first time, a test was created to evaluate Establishment questions before courts:

...what are the purpose and primary effect of the enactment. If either is the advancement or inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the Constitution. That is to say that to withstand the structures of the Establishment Clause there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion. [emphasis added]

Justice Brennan wrote in a concurring opinion that, while legislators argued that they had a secular purpose with their law, their goals could have been achieved with readings from secular document. The law, however, only specified the use of religious literature and prayer. That the Bible readings were to be made "without comment" demonstrated even further that the legislators knew that they were dealing with specifically religious literature and wanted to avoid sectarian interpretations.

A violation of the Free Exercise Clause was also created by the coercive effect of the readings. That this might entail only "minor encroachments on the First Amendment," as argued by others, was irrelevant. The comparative study of religion in public schools is not prohibited, for example, but those religious observances were not created with such studies in mind.

Significance of the Case

This case was essentially a repeat of the Court's earlier Court Decision in Engel v. Vitale, in which the Court identified constitutional violations and struck the legislation. As with Engel, the Court held that the voluntary nature of religious exercises (even allowing parents to exempt their children) did not prevent the statutes from violating the Establishment Clause. There was, of course, an intensely negative public reaction. In May 1964, there were more than 145 proposed constitutional amendments in the House of Representatives which would permit school prayer and effectively reverse both decisions. Representative L. Mendell Rivers accused the Court of "legislating - they never adjudicate - with one eye on the Kremlin and the other on the NAACP." Cardinal Spellman claimed that the decision struck

...at the very heart of the Godly tradition in which America's children have for so long been raised.

Although people commonly claim that Murray, who later founded the American Atheists, was the women who got prayer kicked out of public schools (and she was willing to take the credit), it should be clear that even had she never existed, the Schempp case still would have come to the Court and neither case dealt directly with school prayer at all — they were, instead, about Bible readings in public schools.

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Cline, Austin. "Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1963)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/abington-school-district-v-schempp-and-murray-v-curlett-250694. Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1963). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/abington-school-district-v-schempp-and-murray-v-curlett-250694 Cline, Austin. "Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1963)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/abington-school-district-v-schempp-and-murray-v-curlett-250694 (accessed May 29, 2023).