Edward Lewis Schempp, his wife, and two of their children, who attended public schools in Pennsylvania, filed suit in U.S. district court in Philadelphia, alleging that their religious rights under the First Amendment had been violated by a state law that required public schools to begin each school day with a reading of at least 10 passages from the Bible. The Schempps, who were Unitarians, claimed that the law was an unconstitutional establishment of religion and that it interfered with the free exercise of their religious faith, in violation of the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. They asked the court to declare the law unconstitutional and to issue an injunction against its enforcement and to strike down the school district’s additional requirement that students recite the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day.
After the district court found in favor of the Schempps, the school district and the state’s superintendent of schools appealed to the Supreme Court. Before the case was heard, however, the Pennsylvania General Assembly amended the law to permit students to be excused from Bible readings upon the written request of a parent. The Supreme Court then vacated and remanded the district court’s judgment for further consideration in light of the amended law. After the district court held that the law remained in violation of the establishment clause, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a new appeal, consolidating it with a similar case that had arisen in Baltimore, Maryland, Murray v. Curlett, in which the lower court had found that Bible reading in public schools is constitutional.
Whether the mandatory reading of bible is constitutional
Legislation mandating the reading of religious scripture as part of a public school curriculum violates the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.
The Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment applicable to the states. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from manufacturing its own religion, and it also forbids the government from passing any law that affords a preference to one religion over any other. In order to avoid violating the Establishment Clause, legislation must serve a secular governmental purpose and the primary effect of the legislation must not be to advance or inhibit religion. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from imposing any restrictions upon the individual freedom to engage in religious practices. Legislation violates the Free Exercise Clause if it imposes coercive limitations upon the practice of religion. By contrast, coercion is not a necessary element for legislation to violate the Establishment Clause. The legislation before us does not necessarily require students to participate in religious practices, but it does require students to endure the exercise of religion as part of the regular public school curriculum. The readings take place in public facilities under the oversight of public employees. The readings are religious in nature and the laws in both cases make these religious exercises mandatory. The argument that these exercises seek to advance the secular goals of promoting moral values and the teaching of literature is belied by admissions of the religious character of the exercises. The states argue that forbidding religious exercises in schools works the result of imposing a state-sponsored religion of secularism. Although we agree that the government may not impose laws hostile to the exercise of religion, we do not agree that invalidating these laws amounts to a state-sanctioned preference for those who do not endorse religion over those who embrace a particular ideology. Study of religious scriptures may be presented as a secular aspect of an academic curriculum, but the laws at issue here impose a mandatory exercise of religion. The doctrine of state neutrality does not infringe upon the free exercise of religion by its prohibition against laws that mandate its public exercise, irrespective of the fact that the majority may support its public exercise.