At issue in the consolidated cases of Abington Township School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1963) was whether the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permitted public schools to begin the day with prayer or Bible reading. The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, held that public schools may not engage in officially sanctioned prayer or Bible reading, because to do so would have been unconstitutional. This entry describes the background of the case and the ruling.
Facts of the Case
During the colonial period, most schooling was in private, usually religious, hands. Schools often started the day with prayer or Bible reading. These activities continued when education gradually shifted from private to public schooling. By the turn of the 20th century, states began to codify such practices. Although prayer and Bible reading were generally accepted, they did not occur without controversy, particularly in large cities with religiously diverse immigrant populations.
In the first case, the Schempp family, who were Unitarians, filed a suit in which they claimed that Bible readings in the public schools, required by Pennsylvania law, violated their child’s constitutional rights. While students could be excused from Bible readings if parents requested it, the Schempps believed this measure was insufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution. The second case originated from Baltimore, Maryland, where state law required that the school day begin with a Bible reading, including passages such as the Lord’s Prayer. As with the Pennsylvania statute, parents could ask that their children be excused from the readings. The Murrays, atheists whose children attended Baltimore public schools, objected to the compulsory Bible readings. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeals from the two cases, consolidating them into a single opinion.
The Court’s Ruling
The Court began its analysis by acknowledging that religion has been closely identified with American history and government. However, the Court also observed that “religious freedom” is strongly imbedded in the nation’s public and private life. In the Court’s view, the Constitution requires that the government remain neutral in matters of religious observance.
The Court noted that the text of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits Congress from “creating an establishment of religion.” This Clause expressly applies to the federal government, but it also applies to state governments through the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. In the Court’s view, the Establishment Clause did more than prohibit the federal government or states from creating or “establishing” official governmentally approved churches. According to the Court, the Establishment Clause is broader, because it also prohibits governments from enacting laws that “aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” These principles, the Court noted, “have been long established, recognized and consistently reaffirmed.”
The Establishment Clause, the Court observed, operates in an “interrelationship” with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, providing that Congress may not pass any law “prohibiting the Free Exercise” of religion. The Court went on to point out that the Free Exercise Clause means that the Constitution “does not deny the value or the necessity for religious teaching or observance.” Reading the two clauses together, the Court decided, requires that “state power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.”
First Amendment Test
The Court fashioned the following test to evaluate whether a particular state law is acceptable under the First Amendment:
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 strictures of the Establishment Clause there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion. (p. 222)
This test foreshadowed the “Lemon test” for Establishment Clause violations that the Court articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).
Applying these principles to the Pennsylvania and Maryland practices at issue, the Court found that such overtly religious actions violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In explaining that laws requiring religious exercises and such exercises violated the rights of students, the Court rejected the states’ arguments that the readings could be justified by secular purposes, because the religious character of the exercises was all too apparent. Moreover, the Court was of the opinion that the fact that the students could abstain from the Bible readings was not a defense to a claim of having violated the Establishment Clause.
Anticipating criticism, the Court quickly denied that it was establishing a “religion of secularism.” The Court noted that states may not oppose or be hostile to religion. Further, the Court observed that the Bible “is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” but such study must be part of a “secular program of education.” In contrast, compulsory Bible readings were clearly “religious exercises” that violated the concept of “strict neutrality.”
A number of justices filed concurring opinions, in which they agreed with the Court’s decision but voiced additional reasons why they believed the compulsory Bible readings were unconstitutional. Only one justice, Potter Stewart, dissented. In his view, the record before the Court was insufficiently developed to allow it to conclude that the students were coerced into participating in the exercises in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Impact of Ruling
Insofar as Abington was controversial, it was widely denounced by politicians and by many religious leaders. In fact, a few school systems engaged in civil disobedience, ignoring for a time the Court’s order. Other schools reacted by replacing the mandated Bible readings with a period of silent meditation. Still others hailed the decision as a victory for the Constitution and the rights of religious minorities.
The exact role of religion in the public schools remains a matter of intense debate. As the Court’s opinion in Abington makes clear, there is an inherent tension between vindicating the free exercise of majority religious rights while simultaneously protecting a minority viewpoint through the Establishment Clause. Given the historically religious nature of American society, drawing the legal line between these competing imperatives will continue to present challenges to courts and legislatures.
Stephen R. McCullough
See also Establishment Clause; Lemon v. Kurtzman; Prayer in Public Schools; Religious Activities in Public Schools
Anderson, R. D. (2004). Religion and spirituality in the public school curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.
Marzilli, A. (2004). Religion in the public schools. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
Roberts, R. R. (2002). Whose kids are they anyway? Religion and morality in America’s public schools. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
Abington Township School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).