On Nov. 26, 1956, then-16-year-old Ellery Schempp protested his Philadelphia-area high school's daily Bible reading and prayers by bringing a borrowed Koran to school and silently reading it, rather than the Bible, during morning devotions. Later that day he refused to stand for the Lord's Prayer.
His actions would have far-reaching ramifications.
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"I remember it as if it were yesterday," he told the AARP Bulletin in a telephone interview from his home near Boston. "I had no interest in Islam, and I didn't know anything about it. I only wanted to show that there were other holy books in the world than the Bible."
When his teacher confronted him, Schempp (who was then known as Ellory, but changed his first name in adulthood) explained that as a matter of religious conscience he could no longer participate in Bible readings and prayers. Speechless, the teacher sent Schempp to an equally dumbfounded principal, who passed him on to a guidance counselor, who sent him back to class without disciplining him.
"One of several motivations was a sense of fairness because I knew that there were a number of Jewish kids in the class, and they were clearly uncomfortable," Schempp recalled.
He'd been inspired by his honors English teacher, Alan A. Glatthorn, who assigned readings on civil disobedience by Thoreau and who, Schempp said, made "thinking respectable." (Glatthorn died in 2007.) He also had the full backing of his liberal Unitarian parents.
That night, young Schempp wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union asking for its help. Although he was never forced to take part in prayers or Bible readings after his protest, he had to sit in his guidance counselor's office for the 15 minutes or so that it took the homeroom class to complete the Bible readings and prayers. He didn't have to take part in any of the devotions, but he could hear them over the public address system.
His parents filed a suit against the school district complaining that the devotional practices "interfere with their right to give their children a religious education of their own choosing and according to their own religious beliefs, and that certain beliefs are fostered by such practices which are contradictory to what they have taught and intend to teach their children.