Let's All Celebrate 50 Years of Bible-free Public Schooling with Ellery Schempp

Sometimes it may seem as though the War on Christmas is locked in a stalemate. Every year we have the same old arguments, whether they involve the Ten Commandments being displayed at a courthouse, nativity scenes in public parks, or crosses plastered on public property.

While the annual whinging of such outlets as Fox and Friends might seem vapid and hardly serious, it's important to keep in mind that there are still a lot of people who take them seriously. According to a 2012 poll by Pew Research, 65% of Americans believe that liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government. 57% of Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court's decision that no state or local government may require the reading of the Bible in public schools. Among those supportive of "religious freedom" is, for example, Texas' own Rick Perry; who recently signed into law the "Merry Christmas bill," permitting public employees in public schools to display religious paraphernalia.

That's why I enjoyed this interview with Ellery Schempp, whose parents brought a case to the Supreme Court in 1963; the result of which determined that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional. He presents us with an optimistic view and, in my opinion, illustrates how far such court decisions have helped to take us:

HNN: From what you've seen since the 1963 court decision, including recent developments in the area of church-state separation, are you optimistic about our future?

Schempp: We know that the U.S. has gone through periods of religious fervor in the past, the "Great Awakenings" as described by historians. They waxed and waned. The present fervor will wane, too. The good signs are that many Americans have become skeptical of organized religion, and that some 20% of us now are open about being non-believers, non-theists, atheists, humanists; and more who come from non-Christian traditions.

I am optimistic; I see younger folks in high school and colleges rejecting conventional beliefs and being more open to the values and ethics of Humanism. Our friends at the Secular Student Alliance are doing marvelous work.

The old guard, of course, has its vested interests—preachers and priests who get their income and influence from the faithful. The greatest threat at this time is the Catholic Church's argument that they should be exempt from laws that benefit all of society, just because of their doctrines. This is not about religious liberty; it is about an ecclesiastic group that wants to impose their doctrines on everybody else. I note that bishops take no oath to support our Constitution and refuse to pay taxes for the community services they receive.


It's a common criticism that we hear from the Religious Right: the ACLU and the evil liberals want to stifle diversity and religious freedom. It's vital that we remember that the restriction of state endorsement of religion, whether in a courthouse or a classroom, is essential to diversity. Limiting mandates for religious expression and limiting religious expression are two entirely different things. Schempp furnishes us with hope for the future:

HNN: What differences, if any, have you noticed about how you were treated as a student standing up for church-state separation and the way students who do the same are treated today?

Schempp: There is a much greater acceptance of differences, dissidents, than in 1956-1963 in schools. There is less name-calling, picking on a kid for being an ethnic minority, less bullying. Schools are doing good to promote tolerance. In 1956 when I was in high school, every dissenting view was labeled as “communist” and “evil.” I think the Engel [v. Vitale], Abington [School District v. Schempp], [Lee v.] Weissman cases and many others have provided a foundation that protects kids from authority figures as they quest for their own beliefs.

Many students have come to notice the disconnect between public displays of piety and ethical behavior.

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