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Man responsible for monumental Supreme Court decision visits El Paso

By: Gina Benitez
EL PASO, Texas  -- The year was 1956.
Ellery Schempp was just a 16-year-old high school kid in Pennsylvania.

"They had these Bible readings at the time at the beginning of every day and then the kids stood to recite the Lord's Prayer. I thought, this is not the proper use of the school authorities and governmental authorities."

Schempp said even at that time, The First Amendment was clear to him.

"I could see that many of my classmates were uncomfortable. The Jewish kids were not comfortable with passages typically read at Christmas or Easter time. And I noticed that the Catholic kids recited the Lord's prayer in a slightly different version," Schempp said.

So, Schempp refused to participate.

At the time, daily Bible readings in public schools were required by Pennsylvania state law.

Schempp took his case to the American Civil Liberties Union and theyit backed him.

"They assured me that the only way to overcome this was to file a lawsuit and with our wonderful attorney, we won at the district court level in Pennsylvania," Schempp said.

Then, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 1963, the court ruled 8-1 that Pennsylvania's state law was unconstitutional.

The decision banned mandatory Bible readings and official prayer in our country's public schools.

"It was very interesting too that the court decision was joined in by one of the Catholic justices, one of the Muslim justices and one of the Jewish justices. So it had a broad base of understanding that separation of church and state was good for religion and good for government," Schemmp said.

At the time, Schempp says he didn't realize his protest would become such a monumental decision.

But to this day, he still advocates for something he felt so strongly for close to 60 years ago.

"I'm very pleased that I've been able to play this sort of role and I'm getting to an age where I'm getting ready to pass the torch on to a younger generation," Schempp said.

Schemmp spoke at UTEP Sunday about the monumental decision he was a part of and separation of church and state.

 

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