Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools

A landmark Supreme Court ruling prohibited public schools from conducting religious exercises, including Bible readings for religious (rather than literary) purposes.

Summary of Event

Like the Progressive Era and the New Deal, the 1960’s in the United States have assumed the stature of an important, almost classic, age of reform and liberalism. Civil rights legislation, the Great Society programs, and antiwar protests were all symptomatic of a general quest for greater justice. Unlike earlier episodes of reform, however, the changes of the 1960’s often were introduced almost in defiance of popular opinion. Although liberal measures often resulted from, and received the support of, vocal and active groups, just as often they did not reflect the goals of the “average” citizen, nor was there the kind of massive endorsement of reform that Franklin Roosevelt had enjoyed in 1936. One of the prime examples of these unpopular reforms was the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
Supreme Court, U.S.;religion
Religion in schools
[kw]Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools (June 17, 1963)
[kw]Bible Reading in Public Schools, Supreme Court Limits (June 17, 1963)
[kw]Schools, Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public (June 17, 1963)
Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
Supreme Court, U.S.;religion
Religion in schools
[g]North America;June 17, 1963: Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools[07630]
[g]United States;June 17, 1963: Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools[07630]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 17, 1963: Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools[07630]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;June 17, 1963: Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools[07630]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;June 17, 1963: Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools[07630]
[c]Education;June 17, 1963: Supreme Court Limits Bible Reading in Public Schools[07630]
Clark, Tom C.
O’Hair, Madalyn Murray
Murray, William
Schempp, Edward
Schempp, Sidney
Stewart, Potter
Warren, Earl

The issue of Bible reading in public schools reached the Supreme Court in 1963, in two cases emanating from the adjoining states of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Pennsylvania law required that ten verses from the Bible be read without comment at the beginning of each public school day. Although participation in the exercises was voluntary, Edward and Sidney Schempp and their children, Roger and Donna, members of a Unitarian church, filed suit in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to enjoin the state’s superintendent of public instruction from continuing to conduct religious recitations in public schools. At Abington Senior High School, which Roger and Donna Schempp attended, the religious exercises were broadcast into classrooms through the intercommunication system and consisted of a student reading ten verses of the Bible of his or her choosing, followed by students standing in class and repeating the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

The Maryland case originated in Baltimore, where, since 1905, religious exercises had been held in the public schools and included a reading from the Bible or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her son, William Murray, both professed atheists, filed suit to force the cancellation of the religious exercises in Baltimore schools.

The majority opinion in Abington School District v. Schempp was written by Associate Justice Tom C. Clark and was handed down on June 17, 1963. One year earlier, the Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, Engel v. Vitale (1963) had struck down the New York Board of Regents’ prayer (“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee; we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”) as a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which had been made applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Clark now did the same for the recitation of biblical passages and the Lord’s Prayer.

In his opinion, Clark pointed out that the Court had firmly rejected the argument that the establishment clause prohibited only governmental preference of one religion over another. An examination of the precedents demonstrated conclusively that the First Amendment was designed to forbid all laws respecting the establishment of a religion. Justice Clark denied that the Court’s decision would establish a religion of secularism. He noted that nothing in the opinion precluded the study of the Bible in the public schools in its literary or historical context.

Although the Court’s eight-to-one decision provoked widespread disappointment and anger, it was not unexpected. For nearly twenty years, a series of eight rulings by the Supreme Court gradually had removed the practice of religious activities from state-supported schools. After World War II, a growing number of freethinkers, Jews, and liberal Protestants had resisted the assumption of most local and school authorities that society was, or should be, based on the teachings of the New Testament. Most states permitted or encouraged a variety of religious exercises in the schools, ranging from Bible classes to the recitation of prayer. Increasingly, these practices were challenged in the courts.

A Bible reading in a classroom at Forest Hill School, Hands County, Mississippi.

(Library of Congress)

In the New Jersey case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947) Everson v. Board of Education (1947) , the Supreme Court had defended the use of state funds to bus children to parochial schools but warned that a wall of separation between church and state must be maintained. A year later, in McCollum v. Board of Education, McCollum v. Board of Education (1947)[Maccollum v. Board of Education] the Court banned a program of religious instruction from the schools of Champaign, Illinois. The justices’ chief objection to the Champaign system was that religious teachers were actually brought into the schools, thus involving the state too closely with religion and pressuring dissenting students into conformity with the majority. In 1953, however, the Supreme Court approved a released-time program whereby students could apply to leave schools early in order to attend religious classes at their churches or synagogues.


While the Supreme Court’s opposition to classroom instruction in religion enjoyed widespread support and sympathy, even among churches, the question of school prayers and Bible reading was more delicate. Most people agreed with Justice William O. Douglas’s Douglas, William O. observations that Americans were a religious people; it seemed right and natural that the school day should begin with some recognition of the general belief in God. To prohibit any sort of observance in schools was tantamount, many argued, to state opposition to religion. There were widespread protests after the Court’s ruling in Engel v. Vitale, and a hostile reaction to the Court’s decision in Abington School District. Most people tended to agree with dissenting Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote that he could not see “how an official religion is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it.” At the same time, most religious and educational leaders expressed relief that the Court had finally laid down clear limitations for the schools to follow and had placed responsibility for religion firmly in the hands of families and churches.

Since 1963 and Abington School District, the Supreme Court’s construction of the establishment clause has been erratic and, at times, confusing. The Court’s record has reflected a profound philosophical division between those justices who favored an almost complete separation of church and state and those who advocated an accommodation with religion. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) , the Court, under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger Burger, Warren E. , established a three-pronged test to determine the constitutionality of state laws providing various forms of support for religious schools. The test required that the statute must have a secular legislative purpose, its principal effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and it must not foster an “excess government entanglement with religion.” Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
Supreme Court, U.S.;religion
Religion in schools

Further Reading

  • Boles, Donald E. The Bible, Religion, and the Public Schools. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1965. Covers a wide array of material on the historical, legal, and cultural background of the Abington School District decision.
  • Duker, Sam. The Public School and Religion: The Legal Context. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Discusses the major court rulings concerning religion in the schools, providing lengthy excerpts from court opinions.
  • Eastland, Terry, ed. Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate over Church and State. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1995. Includes the Court’s decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, as well as three essays reflecting on the church and state debate in the United States. Bibliographic references and indexes.
  • Irons, Peter, ed. May It Please the Court—the First Amendment: Transcripts of the Oral Arguments Made Before the Supreme Court in Sixteen Key First Amendment Cases. New York: New Press, 1997. Includes the complete transcript of the oral arguments made in Abington School District v. Schempp. Includes audio cassettes and bibliographic references.
  • Levy, Leonard W. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Analyzes the origins of the establishment clause and critiques the Supreme Court decisions pertaining to its construction.
  • Lytle, Clifford M. The Warren Court and Its Critics. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1968. Traces the reaction of Congress, interest groups, and the general public to the major rulings of the Warren Court; tries to explain the lasting hostility to the Court.
  • Sizer, Theodore R., ed. Religion and Public Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967. Contains a wide selection of provocative essays; some are partisan, others are exclusively analytical.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Examines the religious viewpoints of Justices Warren Burger, Sandra Day O’Connor, and William Brennan as illustrated in their opinions in the Christmas crèche case.

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