Abington Tp. v. Schempp

Following is the case brief for Abington Tp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)

Case Summary of Abington Tp. v. Schempp:

  • This case involves two companion cases, one from Pennsylvania and the other from Maryland.
  • Both Pennsylvania and Maryland passed laws requiring readings from the Holy Bible in public school at the opening of school each day.  The Maryland law allowed the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in lieu of Bible readings.
  • In Pennsylvania, a family sued in federal court.  The federal district court held that the law violated the First Amendment as applied to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • In Maryland, the state trial court and highest appellate court held that the law did not violate the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court held that public schools cannot require Bible readings or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Abington Tp. v. Schempp Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

  • Pennsylvania Case

The State of Pennsylvania required that ten verses from the Holy Bible be read at the opening of each day in public school.  Children may excuse themselves from the Bible reading with a parent’s note.  A family of the Unitarian faith, the Schempp family, sued to enjoin enforcement of the Pennsylvania law.  The suit alleged that the law violates the First Amendment.

  • Maryland Case

The School Board of Baltimore City established a rule, under Maryland’s law, that a chapter of the Holy Bible and/or the Lord’s Prayer must be read for the holding of opening exercises in the schools of the city each day.  A Baltimore mother and her son, who were professed atheists, filed suit against the rule.  The rule was then amended to allow children to be excused from the exercise.  Yet, the lawsuit continued, arguing that despite the caveat that children could be excused the rule still violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Procedural History:

  • In Pennsylvania, the federal district court held that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court noted probable jurisdiction.
  • In the Maryland case, the state trial court, and the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed, finding no violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court then consolidated the two cases.

Issue and Holding:

Does requiring Bible readings in public school violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is affirmed.  The decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Requiring Bible readings and the Lord’s Prayer to be recited in public schools is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

Reasoning:

The First Amendment applies to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Further, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment put the government in a “neutral” position with regard to religious practice.

Under Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Court has stated that the First Amendment provides freedom to worship in a way that an individual may choose, and freedom to exercise a chosen religion.  Requiring a government to maintain neutrality is so that no single religion fuses with government, resulting in religious tenets from one religion being imposed on everyone.

Therefore, the notion of government’s neutrality towards religion is violated when a majority imposes one religion in public schools.  The Free Exercise Clause does not mean that a majority could use State government to practice its beliefs.  Government should remain out of the business of religion entirely because that is what the First Amendment demands.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Douglas):

Not only do the laws in question in this case violate the “neutrality” required with regard to religion, but public funds are being used in both cases to promote a particular religious exercise.  Indeed, public money is being used to promote a religious belief with which only some of the people agree.  Such an indirect form of establishment of religion is also prohibited by the First Amendment.

Concurring Opinion (Brennan):

The framers were careful to protect an individual’s religious belief by both prohibiting laws that limited free exercise, and prohibiting the establishment of religion.  Our history demands those protections not only because the colonies wanted to avoid a single church like the Church of England, but because our public schools serve children of diverse religions.

Moreover, the laws at issue are not saved by the fact that children can be excused from the religious exercises.  As Justice Frankfurter stated, “The law of imitation operates, and nonconformity is not an outstanding characteristic of children.  The result is an obvious pressure upon children to attend” the religious exercises in school.

The goal of the First Amendment was to have a State without religion, and a Church without politics.  The States in this case improperly, and unconstitutionally, favored one religion over others.  That is impermissible in our country.

Concurring Opinion (Goldberg):

While “neutrality” is a worthy goal, government does not have to be hostile toward religion.  Schools should not teach one religion, but they can teach students about religion.  In these cases, the States go too far, but the Court needs to be careful to distinguish between real and perceived threats to the Constitution.

Dissenting Opinion (Stewart):

There is insufficient evidence at this point to determine whether the Constitution has been violated.  The cases should be remanded for the taking of additional evidence.

Significance:

Abington Tp. v. Schempp is an important decision because it put to rest the question of prayer in public schools.  That did not, however, stop controversy from surrounding the Court’s decision for many years to follow.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion

Hear the Oral Arguments

 

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