School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (1963)

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School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (1963) is a U.S. Supreme Court case holding that mandatory religious activity as part of a public school’s curriculum, such as Bible readings and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Find the full opinion here. Bluebook citation: Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).

The Supreme Court consolidated two cases which involved mandatory reading of religious scripture as part of the curriculum in a public school. Justice Clark, writing for the Court, ruled that such mandatory readings violate the First Amendment, specifically the Establishment Clause, through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Establishment Clause prohibits the establishment of a religion by the federal, and through the Fourteenth Amendment any state, government. This extends to the government favoring any religion as well. The Court reasoned that, to avoid violation of the Establishment Clause, legislation must serve a legitimate secular purpose. A Law may also not advance any particular religion or hinder the practice of any religion. 

Here, the school districts argued that, while the readings were religious, they fostered good morals, which is a secular goal. The Court rejected this argument, emphasizing the inherently religious nature of the readings. It further emphasized how the Establishment Clause is a doctrine of neutrality, protecting the exercise of religion and prohibiting the advancement of one religion regardless of the majority of the citizenry’s religious beliefs. Justice Brennan wrote a concurring opinion, where he agreed with the Court’s opinion but emphasized that there are many instances where references to Christianity would be acceptable in academia. Justice Stewart dissented, arguing that religious exercises in public schools could be constructed as a voluntary opportunity for students and, if done in such a manner, would not run afoul of the First Amendment. 

This case is still good law and is effective to date. 

[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]