Fifty years ago, rather than stand up to defend his constitutional rights, Ellery Schempp sat down.
In 1956, Schempp, then a junior at Abington High School in Pennsylvania, refused to stand and recite the Bible verses and prayer that were mandatory at public schools in the state. His actions eventually led to a famous Supreme Court case, Abington School District v. Schempp, which declared school-sponsored Bible reading unconstitutional in public schools.
“At the time, atheists were the most hated and feared group in America,” Schempp said at an event in the Marvin Center Monday night. “Or perhaps it was the other way around: The most feared and therefore the most hated.”
Shortly after refusing to stand and recite the prayer, Schempp brought in a Quran to demonstrate his religious freedom. He was sent to the principal’s office and eventually the school’s guidance counselor, where he was asked if he was “having problems at home.”
The GW student organization SKEPTIC – Science and Knowledge Empowering People to Intelligently Choose – sponsored the event Monday night. SKEPTIC is a group that aims to “establish a home for atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers at GW.”
A table outside the entrance to the event was covered with literature for organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance, the Atheist Alliance International and Freedom from Religion Foundation. Schempp used the speaking engagement to advocate the causes of these groups.
“I’m not against religion,” Schempp said. “Just against using God talk in public office and [for] political gain.”
In defending this position, he quoted a Maryland state senator who once said, “We put our hands on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. We do not place our hands on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”
Schempp, who holds a Ph.D. from Brown University, said he is a firm believer in the role of science and its dominance over religion. He is an accomplished physicist and was involved in the development of the MRI.
He said devotion to science is what made it difficult to believe in religion.
“The Bible is not a book of truth – no more than any other book written 2,000 years ago,” he said.
It is because of these feelings that Schempp has devoted much of his life to limiting prejudice against atheists and increasing the separation of church and state. He finds the idea of forcing young children to recite prayers to be ludicrous, as they are doing so without meaning.
“Robots are neither patriotic nor spiritual,” he said.
Ultimately, Schempp said he sees himself not as a critic of religion but as a firm believer in the First Amendment and the freedom of choice.
He told the audience to remember, “The Constitution mentions religion only twice, and both times ‘no’ is attached to it.”