Edward Lewis Schempp, a Unitarian whose lawsuit led to the landmark Supreme Court decision that “kicked God and prayer out of the schools,” died on Nov. 8 from heart failure. He was 95.
Schempp was working as an electronics engineer in Roslyn, Penn., when his son, Ellery, decided to conduct a protest at Abington High School. The teen, who was a junior at the school, didn’t think it was right for students to be required by law to read at least 10 verses from the Bible and then recite the Lord’s Prayer during homeroom every day.
On Nov. 26, 1956, Ellery went to class and read passages from the Koran; he was sent to the principal’s office. He then penned a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union and asked the organization for help.
After three years of lawsuits and lobbying, the Pennsylvania legislature added a provision to its law that allowed students to excuse themselves from the mandatory Scripture study, if they obtained parental consent. Because Ellery had already graduated from the high school, Edward Schempp took up his son’s cause in order to protect his younger children. In the midst of the Red Scare, students who objected to studying the Christian text where labeled Communists and atheists, he said.
School District of Abington Township v. Schempp arrived on the U.S. Supreme Court docket in 1963. In an 8-1 decision, the court sided with Schempp, saying the Bible-reading requirement violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. This ruling invalidated mandatory Bible reading in all public schools.
For months after the decision, Schempp felt the wrath of Christians who sent thousands of letters to his family. Some, he said, were “so vile” that they had to be turned over to postal authorities. Schemmp didn’t stop fighting for his beliefs, though. In later years, he wrote letters to newspapers, marched against the Vietnam War and published the book, “Buyer’s Guide to Gods.”