ON THIS DATE in 1956, sixteen-year-old Ellery Schempp sent a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) requesting “action and/or aid in testing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania law which arbitrarily … compels the Bible to be read in our public school system.” The high school junior at Abington Senior High in the Philadelphia suburbs kick-started Abington v. Schempp, a case that resulted in a landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision banning mandatory Bible readings in public schools.
Before Schempp’s protest, students at Abington High took turns reading ten Bible verses each morning, then recited together the Lord’s Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. On November 26, 1956, Schempp silently read a copy of the Quran during the morning devotional. “It could just as easily have been some Hindu or Buddhist scripture,” he told Church & State five decades later. “It was merely symbolic to challenge the view that Bible verses were unique; there were other claimants to ‘absolute truth’ and ‘sacred scripture.’”
Schempp refused to stop reading when a teacher instructed him to and was sent to the principal’s office. Later that day he sent his letter to the ALCU.