Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)

2011-10-10 02:27:37

One of the two decisions known as the school prayer cases, Abington followed immediately in the wake of Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the recitation in public schools of a prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents. There the Court concluded that it was ‘‘no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.’’ Unlike Engel, which involved the state’s participation in the composition of a religious exercise, in Abington government acted as the sponsor rather than composer of religious exercises. The case thus posed clearly the issue of whether state-sponsored and supervised religious activities violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. A majority of the Court held that they did.

The Decision in Abington

At issue in Abington was the state-sponsored practice of beginning school days with Bible readings, selected and read by students or a teacher, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by students. Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Tom Clark easily concluded that the Bible readings and prayers were religious exercises. The primary defect of state-sponsored religious exercises in public schools, according to the Court’s opinion, was that they offended the Establishment Clause’s demand for neutrality on the part of government with respect to religion. The requisite constitutional neutrality was more than a mere lack of preference for one religion over another, though there was significant evidence before the Court that the religious exercises at issue preferred Christianity to Judaism. Instead, the Court characterized the necessary neutrality as one which avoided aiding or hindering religion. Justice Clark’s opinion did not characterize the Establishment Clause in terms of a necessary separation between church and state, but it quoted favorably from previous decisions emphasizing the requirement of separation.

The decision in Abington did not turn on a finding that students were compelled to participate in religious exercises that offended their beliefs, since students were allowed to absent themselves from the exercises. But the Court concluded that this fact did not salvage the practices at issue, since the Establishment Clause required neutrality toward religion, not simply the avoidance of religious compulsion. In language that would assume even greater importance once incorporated into the three-part test of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), for determining whether a government action violated the Establishment Clause, the Court’s opinion emphasized that the requisite neutrality called for a ‘‘secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion.’’

Against the claim that the removal of officially sponsored prayer and Bible reading would establish a ‘‘religion of secularism,’’ the Court denied that its decision excluded religion from schools. ‘‘Nothing we have said here,’’ Justice Clark insisted for the majority, ‘‘indicates that . . . study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.’’ Nor could the Court accept that its decision frustrated the free exercise of religion, an argument present by Justice Potter Stewart in a dissenting opinion. Stewart suggested that parents who wished their children to begin the school day with Bible readings and prayer had a substantial free exercise claim. If religion were excluded from public schools, then the religion would be placed at an ‘‘artificial and state-created’’ disadvantage. A majority of the Court, however, rejected this argument. The Establishment Clause meant that a local or state religious majority could not ‘‘use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs.’’


Abington established firmly the principle that public school authorities would not be permitted to sponsor devotional religious exercises. In subsequent cases, the Court demonstrated itself to be the implacable antagonist of every attempt to makes state or local governments partners in the conduct of religious exercises or in the dissemination of religious teachings. Attempts to circumvent the holdings of Engel and Abington flourished in the decades that followed. Some states attempted to create ‘‘moments of silence’’ in which students might pray or meditate or do nothing, according to their individual desires. A majority of the members of the Court seemed receptive to this kind of legislative scheme, at least in some circumstances. But when evidence suggested that an Alabama statute of this nature had been passed with the purpose of restoring prayer to public schools, the Court struck the law down in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985), as lacking a secular purpose. Since Wallace v. Jaffree, all lower courts have sustained these statutes as unconstitutional.

Later, when state-sponsored prayers banished from public school classrooms migrated to various paraschool functions, such as graduation ceremonies and football games, the Court responded with similar constitutional vigilance. In Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), a majority of the Court held unconstitutional prayers at a middle school graduation ceremony offered by a rabbi at a school official’s request. Moreover, in Sante Fe I.S.D. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), the Court struck down an arrangement established by a school district in which students were allowed to vote on whether to have prayers at football games and to select students to offer the prayers.

The Court has also applied the essential principle of Abington to contexts in which religious symbols or teaching was at issue. Thus, in Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), the Court invalidated a school district practice of displaying the Ten Commandments in classrooms, concluding that such displays lacked a secular purpose. In Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987), the Court found a similar lack of secular purpose in a Louisiana statute providing for the teaching of ‘‘creation science’’ when evolution was taught.

In spite of complaints that the Court had banished religion from public schools, however, not all forms of religious devotion or even teaching about religion are excluded by the principle of Abington. Both the opinion for the Court and Justice William Brennan’s important concurring opinion in the case emphasized the propriety of teaching about religion from an academic, rather than a devotional, standpoint. It would distort history and literature and other subjects to teach these subjects without reference to the religious experiences of humankind, and the Court hurried to acknowledge this fact. What the School Prayer cases prohibited was teaching designed to proselytize or to inculcate religious devotion. Moreover, private prayer offends no constitutional principle. Thus, in Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990), the Court refused to extend the ruling of Engel and Abington to prevent Congress from mandating equal access for religious student groups. The federal Equal Access Act provided that religious student groups were entitled to equal access to school facilities as enjoyed by other noncurricular groups. In Mergens, the Court held that this accommodation did not offend the Establishment Clause.

Abington acknowledged various forms of civic religiosity common in American society, including the divine invocation made a part of oaths in legal proceedings (‘‘So help me God’’), the invocation preceding the Court’s sessions (‘‘God save this honorable Court’’), and civic prayers such as those offered at the beginning of congressional sessions. But Justice Clark’s opinion for the majority did not seriously attempt to distinguish these aspects of public religion from the Bible readings and prayer before the Court. It would remain for future majorities to harmonize the principles articulated in Abington with Civil Religion more broadly conceived.

The School Prayer cases had a further legacy that reached outside the realm of courts into the realm of politics. After the controversy between theological liberals and fundamentalists during the early part of the twentieth century, many theological conservatives withdrew from active participation in public affairs. They focused instead on the creation of their own educational and charitable institutions rather than on political action. But the School Prayers cases of the 1960s, coupled with the Court’s decision affirming a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, in 1973, almost certainly had the effect of igniting a new wave of conservative participation in the political process. Some of this political participation took the form of advocacy of a constitutional amendment to reverse the holdings in the School Prayer cases. Although such amendments have been proposed, none has secured the measure of support necessary to win passage.

The new advocacy also turned to a variety of other political issues. In the late 1970s, for example, Baptist minister Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority as a political group devoted to the advocacy of conservative political policies. Although the group remained active only for a decade, it is sometimes credited with helping to elect Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. Though Falwell disbanded the organization toward the end of the following decade, Pat Robertson, a popular religious television personality and would-be candidate for the Republican nomination for president, organized the Christian Coalition to serve purposes similar to those sought by the Moral Majority. The exact political influence of these and other manifestations of what came to be known as the ‘‘Christian right’’ remain highly contested. But the significant presence of such groups, a presence at least partially owing its genesis to hostility to the School Prayer cases, cannot be doubted.


References and Further Reading

  • Choper, Jesse H. Securing Religious Liberty: Principles for Judicial Interpretation of the Religion Clauses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 44–53
  • Curry, Thomas J. Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 76–80
  • Feldman, Stephen M. Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State. New York: New York University Press, 1997, 233–235
  • Hall, Timothy L., Sacred Solemnity: Civic Prayer, Civil Communion, and the Establishment Clause, Iowa Law Review 79 (1993): 44–46
  • Nowak, John E., and Ronald D. Rotunda, Constitutional Law, 1460–1465, 7th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thompson– West, 2004
  • Stone, Geoffrey R., In Opposition to the School Prayer Amendment, University of Chicago Law Review 50 (1983): 823–848

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990) 
  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) 
  • Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) 
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) 
  • Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992) 
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971) 
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) 
  • Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) 
  • Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) 
  • Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985) 
  • Equal Access Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 4071–74 

See also Bible Reading in Public Schools, History of before and after Abington School District v. Schempp; Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); Legislative Prayer; Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983); Prayer in Public Schools; Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)