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Law School Case Brief

Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp - 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560 (1963)


The fundamental concept of liberty embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment embraces the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment. The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to enact such laws.


A Pennsylvania statute required that “at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian." Plaintiffs Schempp family, husband, wife, and two of their three children, brought suit to enjoin enforcement of the statute, contending that their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were, have been, and will continue to be violated unless this statute be declared unconstitutional. They sought to enjoin the defendant School District of Abington Township, wherein the Schempp children attend school, and its officers and the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the Commonwealth from continuing to conduct such readings and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in the public schools of the district pursuant to the statute. A three-judge statutory District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that the Pennsylvania statute violated the Establishment Clause. 

In a second case, Mrs. Madalyn Murray and her son, William J. Murray III,  both professed atheists, filed in a Maryland state court a petition for mandamus to compel rescission of the rule of the School Commissioners of Baltimore City, which provided for the holding of opening exercises in the schools of the city, consisting primarily of the "reading, without comment, of a chapter in the Holy Bible and/or the use of the Lord's Prayer." The trial court, sustaining the demurrer of the defendants without leave to amend, dismissed the petition. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed. The cases were consolidated and the United States Supreme Court granted the petitioners' request for certiorari review.


Was the legislation and rule, which required that verses from the Bible be read at the opening of each public school on each school day, unconstitutional as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?




The Court held that the Pennsylvania statute and the rule adopted by the Baltimore school district, which required Bible verses be read, violated the Establishment Clause, and thus, was unconstitutional. The Court noted that the First Amendment reflected the philosophy that Church and State should be separated. And so far as interference with the "free exercise" of religion and an "establishment" of religion were concerned, the separation must be complete and unequivocal. The First Amendment within the scope of its coverage permitted no exception; the prohibition was absolute.

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