Guest Post by Ellery Schempp

While I was away this weekend, I received a very kind email from Ellery Schempp that included a brief response that he has written to last week's election, which he gave me permission to post if I choose to. For those who do not know who Ellery Schempp is, you should acquaint yourself with Abington Township School District v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed mandatory Bible reading in public schools. Ellery was 16 years old when that case first began in 1956 and he prompted the case by reading from the Quran instead of from the Bible during the mandatory Bible reading time. Indeed, November 26th will be the 50th anniversary of that brave act of defiance that helped reduce the coercion of religious belief in this country and thereby expanded our liberty. Ellery went on to become a relatively prominent physicist. Needless to say, I am extremely flattered that he would read my blog and find it worthy of his time. I am going to post his thoughts on last week's election, unedited, below:


Guest Post by Ellery Schempp

The results of Tuesday's elections significantly strengthen separation of church and state.

The new Democratic leadership in the House and Senate are focused on running the government instead of having a faith-based agenda of faux issues promoted by budding theocrats. We look toward refreshing political dialogs in terms of what makes for good policies for our society without having "true believers" who insist that they have God's email address and "know for certain" about "righteousness".

Of the many sins of the past leadership, perhaps their greatest one was to proselytize that wrapping themselves in the cloak of "godliness" could give them claim to own patriotism.

It is very encouraging that a goodly number of "intelligent design" (ID) proponents lost handsomely. These include DeVos for governor in Michigan; Blackwell for governor in Ohio; Santorum for Senator in Pennsylvania; Katherine Harris for Senator in Florida (who infamously stated that "only Christians can be trusted to be in government"). In Kansas, the Board of Education was reclaimed from the creationists by reality-based members to make a 6-4 majority (although two of the worst creationists won); in Ohio elections for the Board of Education most of the creationists and IDiots lost.

The era of big government conservatives to push thought control in posting "10 (of the 613) Commandments" is over.

I feel confident that anti-First Amendment judges in the Scalia and Thomas molds can now be blocked from appointment.

In our past, we have had three eras of religious and moralistic fervor. These are called by historians the "Great Awakenings". We have been in a period of a "fourth awakening" of religiosity, which I call the Great Darkening, since about 1995. These were times of religious demoguery when priests and pastors attempted to capture the power of government to promote their views (and not incidently, their prerogatives). The election shows that the pendulum always swings, and the evangelico-politico darkening is waning.

I think the climate is noticeably better for preservation of separation of church and state after the elections. This does not mean that we can give up on vigilance. The temptation to equate personal faith and public display of piety remains. The temptation to equate a faith in a god with the good of the country remains. Democrats are not immune from this.

The contrived myth that Christians in America are being persecuted has not gone away, but I think that respect for separation of church and state has improved. Not exactly in this phrase, but in terms of recognizing that fairness for all is a fundamental American value.

"Faith-belief"is no longer adequate in excusing incompetence.

We are seeing the end of the Great Darkening. Scandals showing hypocrisy have helped this. Faith- and authoritarian-based ideologies in foreign policy have been recognized as failures. Attacks on separation of church and state may diminish. The political influence of religious zealotry from Republicans on the right wing has been diminished.

We should require affirmative applause for the First Amendment clauses on religion from Democrats.


Back to my own comments. I should note that I do not agree with every word of this. In one instance, I think the rhetoric is a bit too strident. I don't think it's reasonable to call Scalia and Thomas "anti-first amendment judges." Certainly their views are contrary to the interpretation of the religion clauses that we would mutually prefer, but I don't think that's the same thing. Neither Scalia nor Thomas is a theocrat; both are accomodationists. And as I've noted before, I don't think accomodationism is an unreasonable interpretation of the first amendment (though again, it's not the one I would prefer).

Accomodationists take the position that the government cannot coerce religious belief, but that it may support religion through official (but non-coerceive and non-binding) resolutions and proclamations. Washington and Adams were clearly accomodationists. Despite both being rather unorthodox themselves, both believed that religion was necessary for morality and social cohesion and that the government ought therefore to encourage and support religious belief as long as it did so without violating the rights of individuals.

Now, it should also be noted that even under an accomodationist position, Schempp's Supreme Court case should still have been decided the same way. Mandatory devotional Bible reading clearly is a coercive policy and should be overturned on either separationist or accomodationist grounds because it prescribes specific mandatory behavior in regard to religion (as opposed to a merely advisory proclamation of a day of prayer, for example, which would be fine with accomodationists). A minor quibble, but I thought it worth mentioning.

Thanks again to Ellery Schempp for taking the time to write and for giving my ego an obviously unnecessary, and quite possibly dangerous, boost.

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WOW!!! Way cool. I teach the Schempp case in my Con Law II class each term. Great to know that Mr. Schempp is alive and well, and actually reads this blog. Welcome, and thanks for letting Ed share your thoughts.

I think he is spot on. More than a referendum on the war in Iraq, I think it was a referendum on the religious right's highjacking of the GOP and through them, our government.

I think that his views on accomadationists is also quite reasonable. I understand that theirs is a legitamate view of the constitution, but I think it is also time to move past it. It can be abused far too easily - just look to bush's office for faith based initiatives. If any idea of accomodation is reasonable, it's allowing government funding to go to religious charities. But that is simply not how it works out with bush's faith based initiative. One could easily look at that and say that our government firmly favors Judeo Christian faith above all others, as that is where nearly all, if not all of those funds have gone. I just don't see accomodationist ideals as ones we need on our courts.

While I applaud Dr. Schempp's posting, I'm not as optimistic about the future. When politicians abuse the Frist Amendment, as the Bush administration has done quite willfully, many Americans go right along, blissful in the conviction that the poliitician knows best. Only when things go awry, as they have during the last four to six years, does the electorate begin to think something is amiss. Yet when polled, most Americans do not recognize, understand or even know the specific freedoms secured by the First Amendment. Given that ignorance, they are willing victims of predatory politicians who play to their xenophobia. Given the vulnerability of most of the population to such ploys, we must always be vigilant against such predaory practices and attack them when they arise. Letting our guard down is just plain dangerous.

Thanks to Ed for his very kind introduction. It was sweet to note that Nov. 26 is the anniversary of when I sent a letter to the ACLU of Philadelphia to seek their help in ending the compulsory Bible-readings in Pennsylvania's public schools. I am grateful that Ed is so well informed as to mark the date--which had escaped me.

I agree that many of the Founding Fathers "believed that religion was necessary for morality and social cohesion". Even Jefferson and James Madison flirted with this notion. But they were wary "that the government ought therefore to encourage and support religious belief as long as it did so without violating the rights of individuals." Many Founders noted that organized religion had always tried to capture the power of government to promote their particular agendas.

"Accomodationists [sic] take the position that the government cannot coerce religious belief, but that it may support religion through official [actions]." I specifically disagree with this view. I do not agree to "faith-based" government. My understanding is that our government is secular, that is, neither favoring nor hindering personal religious belief. This is neutrality.

I would argue that the accommodationist view differs from the Founders who were concerned about the "tyranny of the majority". In my view, there are not only rights of the minority, but also strict limits on what the majority might do by way of being in power. "Accommodating" merely cedes power to televangelists with the louder voices and bigger incomes.

I consider that our Constitution is humanist, starting with "We the people..." and there is no mention of accommodating any god-belief or Christian belief. It is not a proper function of government to be promoting public displays of religiosity.

Another problem with the "accommodationist" position seems to me to be in exactly which personal religious views or which church views "it may support". Which religion indeed? For sure, millions of Americans believe in Genesis and do not accept evolution. I am not prepared to "accommodate" silly notions about psychics, astrology, new age beliefs in gurus, creationism/'intelligent design', Canon or Sha'ria law, or religious beliefs in snake handling. Government has no business getting involved in these matters, although I do favor protecting snakes.

By Ellery Schempp (not verified) on 13 Nov 2006 #permalink

Now, it should also be noted that even under an accomodationist position, Schempp's Supreme Court case should still have been decided the same way.

Do we have any hint on the position Scalia or Thomas would have taken in this case?

By G. Shelley (not verified) on 13 Nov 2006 #permalink

Another connection of interest for many of Ed's readers: Abington Township School District v. Schempp was one of the primary precedents used in Epperson v. Arkansas, which overturned Arkansas's anti-evolution law.

I was not aware of Mr. Schemp's 1963 defense of freedom. Mr. Ellery Schempp and others like him are the reason I took an oath to "Defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic", to defend the Constitution, not any particular religion or party, or administration. Enemies of freedom and democracy come in all shapes and sizes and under many banners, but the most insidious are those that clothe themselves in righteousness. Mr. Schemp I salute you.

By Jim Spencer (not verified) on 14 Nov 2006 #permalink

I think you are honored here, Ed. :-)

Thanks for linking to the original decision. I found that a very interesting read, although there were bits I didn't understand.

I found it as interesting in its own way as the Kitzmiller decision.


I was going to high school in a small town outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania when the decision came down. The next morning my homeroom teacher, who was also the football coach and a civics teacher, spent the entire homeroom session denegrading and ridiculing the decision. This was the first time that I realized that teachers could be rather dense as I found myself easily (and silently) poking holes in his arguments.
As he babbled on, I very distinctly remember feeling a profound sense of relief. In our school district the students were expected to pick the passages from the bible and read them in front of the class, so that meant that about once a month it was your turn to do the reading. I did not come from a particularly religious family, so I would not put much thought into my selection, usually opening the bible to a random passage and reading it out loud. (It was only much later that I realized that could have turned out quite badly considering some of the content of the bible) I had always accepted this as the norm, but now I realized that this had never been voluntary. I had never been given a choice; I had always been coerced by the teachers and peer pressure. This was by no means the middle of the bible belt, yet the pressure to conform was overwhelming. The readings were supposed to instill piety and morality in the students, but as I sat there that day, I wondered how many of my fellow students had also found it an empty gesture that was to be endured once a month.
That day a germ of an idea was planted in my brain, and began to question many other "truths" that I had never bothered to examine before. So I would like to thank Mr. Schempp for inspiring at least one intellectual awakening.
I do have one question. Didn't Madeline Murray and her son Bill attach themselves to the case also? My recollection is that MM O'Hare certainly took a great deal of credit for it.

Yes, there was a second case filed by O'Hair that was consolidated with the Schempp case when it went to the Supreme Court.

To Charlie:
I loved your recollections from Allentown. Please email Ed for my email address.

I have had the good fortune to have lived long enough to have known Vashti McCollum (died August, 2006), Roy Torcasso, Steven Engel, Madalyn Murray, and Mike Newdow. (Our family got several thousand letters wishing us to go to hell. I am glad to report that I am not there yet.)

Madalyn Murray (O'Hair) was an impressive person. She was murdered in 1996 with her son Garth and granddaughter Robin. The Supreme Court case is fully designated as "Abington vs. Schempp and Murray vs. Curlett". The cases had different lower court histories, and the SC joined them as presenting substantially the same issues.

Tim Young is working on a documentary of Madalyn Murray's life. Any readers with personal recollections might contact me.

Thanks to everyone for your kind comments. I think the Secularist Coalition for America, is an important endeavor in pulling together humanists, atheists, agnostics, libertarians, secularists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, separation of church&state, and like-minded persons so that we all pull the wagon in the same direction.

There are many who dissent from a fundamentalist culture in their private beliefs, but dissents have been fragmented.

There are some 14% of Americans who self-identify as atheists, non-believers, or other (represented in the Pew poll). The 14% figure is probably an underestimate. Many folks have doubts, but go along to accommodate a spouse or a culturally normative expectation.

14% means 42,000,000 of us. This is larger than the number of Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, or Hispanic-Americans as defined voter groups.

Atheists are the most sincerely hated minority in America.
Hated and feared go hand in hand.

By Ellery Schempp (not verified) on 15 Nov 2006 #permalink