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Ellery's Protest: Excerpt

Ellery Schempp at 16 in 1956, when he protested prayer and Bible-reading at Abington High School.Ellery Frank Schempp closed the door of his house behind him at ten minutes before eight in the morning and felt the chill November air on his cheeks.

The date was November 26, 1956, a Monday, and high school was resuming after a long Thanksgiving weekend. Ellery felt a little different this morning, a little nervous. He fingered his leather binder, zippered up with a notebook and a few books inside. They were a substantial weight to carry every day, but now the weight itself was a little reassuring, a little steadying. Usually he took only textbooks between home and school. Today, though, he also had a book that he had borrowed over the weekend from the father of a friend. It was the Koran, the holy book of Islam. It made his heart race a little to think of what he planned to do with it in school.

His plans for the beginning of the day in his homeroom class would surely cause a stir—he was quite certain of that. But he didn't know exactly what the trouble would be. What could the teachers and administrators do to him, anyway? He wasn't a troublemaker. He was an A student enrolled in all the advanced college preparatory classes in the eleventh grade.

Since second grade, Ellery had lived with his parents and two siblings in a white stucco cape-style house at 2457 Susquehanna Road in the Roslyn section of Abington Township, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Situated perpendicular to Susquehanna, the house presented a rather stark silhouette to the street, with no shutters on the windows and no dormers on the second floor. There was no sidewalk in front of the house, and no curb lined the street. The roof was constructed of aluminum sheeting. It looked like a house built in a big hurry, with much that might soften its appearance left to do later but never done.

Ellery Schempp today.Ellery's younger brother and sister were still at home preparing for their day in junior high school. It had been a relaxing enough weekend, with lots of family time and a Thanksgiving turkey at Grandmother's house. This four-day holiday was a much-needed break after a long stretch of school. Sixteen years old and nearing the halfway point of his junior year, Ellery had to think not only of school but also of the college applications that would be coming up soon. Neither of his parents had studied beyond high school, and the knowledge that he would surely be heading off to a top-flight university gave him feelings of both accomplishment and anticipation.

He walked down Susquehanna Road. Traffic was busy already on the road that separated his house from a cemetery of rolling hills across the street. Here in Abington Township, the estates and farmland were falling fast to developers, who carved them into small plots and quickly threw up houses for middle-class families, like his own, that wanted to escape the city for some room to breathe. Just this year, about a mile and a quarter from the Schempp house, the township had opened a sprawling new high school to accommodate all the children who arrived traveling with their parents in Chevys and Dodges up the Old York Road into town.

He enjoyed the brisk fifteen-minute walk to school, which took him east on Susquehanna, over railroad tracks, and through a field to the front entrance. When the air was bitter enough—that would happen in another month—his damp hair would freeze and stiffen by the time he entered the high school lobby. Built on a hill at the end of a long and steep driveway, the new school was nicely appointed with some of the niftiest technology of the 1950s. A public address system enabled administrators to reach all the classrooms in the school at once with announcements, and the school even boasted a media center for students interested in radio and television production. But for all the advantages brought by a new facility, the school still greeted students with standard-issue cinder block walls and linoleum tiles, a design meant to deny the scuffs and markings that record the passage of human activity. Ellery thought that perhaps that was the point. A scuff mark is evidence that an individual has passed by, and in Ellery's judgment, the notion of an individual making his or her mark outside of the accepted social covenants of the school merited no celebration at Abington Senior High School. In the conformist fifties, all of the pressure at school—from students, from teachers, from administrators—was to swim entirely within the lane of the pool that the powers that be had assigned.

Ellery, however, was not in the mood to conform. He came to school that day with an idea to express. He was unhappy that each school day started with a reading of ten verses from the King James Version of the Protestant Bible, followed by recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Ellery was himself a Protestant, though from the Unitarian denomination, which is relatively liberal theologically. But the King James Version expressed religious lessons that Ellery and his family did not accept, and Ellery's understanding of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution led him to conclude that the religious ceremony imposed by the state of Pennsylvania through the Abington public schools violated his rights to religious freedom. So on this day, Ellery planned to protest in the most effective way he knew—by using the morning devotionals to read the holy book from a different religious tradition.

The corridors were busy with students hustling to their rooms. Up the stairway he went to the second floor, and then down the hallway to Elmer Carroll's homeroom class. Homeroom is where the school day started, with about fifteen minutes filled with administrative details, the morning devotionals, and the Pledge of Allegiance. As was his usual custom, Carroll took attendance and then asked the students to clear their desks. For once, Ellery did not comply. The public address system came to life with a few bars of music. Then, as he heard a student's voice begin reciting a verse from the Bible, he opened up his Koran and began reading silently. Ellery Frank Schempp didn't know it at the time, but he had just started his journey that chilly November morning to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Schempp family on the steps of the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C. Ellery is first on the right.

Copyright by Stephen D. Solomon. No use of this material is permitted without prior consent of the author.