By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – An Abington High School grad who turns 73 this week, takes a look back at a teenager’s act of defiance that helped separate church and state in America fifty years ago.
Ellery Schempp was just 16-years old when he staged a classroom protest in 1956. While his homeroom teacher read verses from the bible, Schempp read from a Quran to make a point.
“Religion and government should be separate. There’s a proper place for prayers in the Synoguage and at church and at home.”
When the school refused to change, Schempp and his Universalist parents reached out to the ACLU and attorney Henry Sawyer took up the case. It was August 5th, 1958– Schempp’s birthday when lawyers gave their first argument in federal Court. It took five years of court battles before the US Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision school-sponsored bible readings are unconstitutional.
“8-1 is pretty rare,” says Schempp, “but we won it with both the liberal and conservative courts joining in.”
The case caused some backlash while he was in school and his siblings were sometimes bullied and isolated because of the case. But today–Schempp, a retired physicist, has no regrets about his life. He’s climbed high mountains, traveled to Antarctica and continues to advocate for the separation of church and state.
“I think it is a very important issue and I am happy to have played some small part in history,” he says.