On the morning of November 26th, 1956, Ellery Schempp would engage in a small act of protest that would suck the nation into political and theological turmoil that exists to this day. In his homeroom at Abington Senior Highschool in Abington Township, a suburb to the north of Philadelphia, during the morning devotionals in which the King James Bible was read, Ellery quietly sat and read silently out of the Koran.
Thus was the stage set for Stephen D. Solomon’s Ellery’s Protest, a riveting telling of the backlash that Ellery’s quiet protest caused and so much more.
In truth, Elleryis significantly more than a mere history of Schempp and the court proceedings that resulted, instead following the fates of four separate court cases and their race to the Supreme Court.
Playing in the background was Leo Pfeffer, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress, and a strong opponent of prayer in the public schools. Despite this, however, Pfeffer proves to be more hindrance than help to Schempp, a result of him waiting for the perfect case to hit the Supreme Court for maximum effect.
His case came, but in a sad sidebar to the book, it would prove to come too late.
What makes this work eminently fascinating, though, is the inclusion of a comprehensive history directly entangled with our own that shows the ills of government sanctioned religious practices. As people fleeing religious persecution in England populated America’s shores, there they would also see such persecution, but this time from the other side of the fence:
Tensions rose again with the coming of the July 4 holiday, two months after the school skirmish. Fearing more violence, Catholics stored muskets in a church in the Southwark section of the city. As the situation deteriorated over the coming days, the militia took position in front of the church. Once again, violence flared. The militia opened fire on an angry crowd, killing two people and wounding four others. Nativists commandeered two cannons and set them up on Christian Street at two corners, firing up the street and killing two people. The militia fired back with a cannon of its own. For hours, cannon and musket fire echoed throughout a city at war over what version of the Bible to read to schoolchildren. Before it was all over, there were two dead and twenty-three wounded militiamen and about ten dead and twenty wounded nativists. To keep order, two thousand troops occupied Philadelphia. Feeling that Protestant control of the schools could not be resolved any time soon, Bishop Kenrick began building a new system of Catholic parochial schools.
Reachin far back and bringing us up to the time of Ellery’s reading of the Koran, Solomon lays a rich foundation of religious tension that has plagued America and its predacessors that in does well to color the context in which the justices who would eventually rule on Schempp came to their final decision.
Meanwhile, we are treated to the histories of three other cases; that of Bill and Madalyn Murray, the latter an outspoken atheist who had gone into the poorhouse fighting prayer in the public schools in Baltimore on behalf of her son, the suit brought against New York which had constructed a watered down prayer, and Pfeffer’s dream case coming out of Dade County in Florida where students were not only required to participate in Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer, but also very religious observances of Christian holidays.
All of these threads are woven expertly together to tell a compelling story of the ushering in of the religious animosity that is so much a part of the national debate today. What makes this work even more engrossing, though, is its accessibility.
One of my greatest fears when first reading this book was that it would be too steeped in legalese for a layperson such as myself. But Solomon expertly navigates the tricky waters of expert knowledge and layperson understanding, deftly making complex legal concepts attainable to the casual reader, and through this, giving the facts and history of Schempp the significance and gravity necessary as it pertains to today’s world.
Nor does this end like so many legal dramas available in all forms of media. There is not in Ellery an announcement of a decision followed by a quick epilogue, but instead a comprehensive look at the aftermath, from the immediate protests to the Supreme Court’s decision to find in favor of Ellery, to present day as the reinvigorated Religious Right continues to find any way possible to overturn the decisions including Schempp that affected the role of religion in the public schools since the sixties.
And at its core, Ellery’s Protest provides a two lessons that are just as important today as a significant bloc of American politics tries to reinject religion into politics and the public forum as they were back then when Ellery opened a Koran instead of a Bible.
The first being the simple remembrance that the founders had not necessarily intended God to be embedded in our government. This is particularly true with Madison and Jefferson who fought hard to build the wall between church and state. The second is that removal of prayer and religious readings of the Bible in our public school system is not merely a protection for atheists and pagans as so many proponents of the school prayer are want to profess, but instead the removal provides protection for ALL Americans, regardless of religious creed.