Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Court papers, legal opinions, and correspondence relating to Civil Action Number 24119 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, entitled Edward Lewis Schempp, Sidney Gerber Schempp, individually and as parents and natural guardians of Ellory Frank Schempp, Roger Wade Schempp and Donna Kay Schempp v. School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, James F. Koehler, O. H. English, Eugene Stull, M. Edward Northam, and Charles H. Boehm (1959) and a related case in 1960 heard by the Maryland Court of Appeals concern the practice of reading the Bible in public schools.

The Supreme Court decision upheld the judgment of the lower court that the Commonwealth’s statute requiring each school day to commence with a Bible reading was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. (The statute ruled unconstitutional was Section 1516 of the Public School Code of 1949, the Act of March 18, 1949, P.L. 30, as amended December 17, 1959, P.L. 1928, 24 P.S. 15-1516.) In their written opinion, the justices of the United States Supreme Court also invalidated a rule of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners requiring recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by students in unison and the daily reading of Bible verses as part of the school day’s opening exercises (Murray v. Curlett). The Maryland case received far greater notoriety over the years because Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919–1995) was founder and president of American Atheists, a controversial organization established in 1963. (The Schempps were Unitarian.)

In its decision, the court banned the practices of “requiring” and “permitting” organized Bible reading in public schools, but it did encourage teaching about comparative religion and the history of religion, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, a period of silent meditation, readings from great literature and speeches of leading Americans, and inspirational music, poetry, and art as long as the school did not “aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” The decision also specifically allowed the practice of spontaneous individual prayer by any student during the course of the school day. These materials are part of the Legal Case File Relating to Bible Reading in Public Schools, 1959–1965, in Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Justice.

The document selected for this installment of Our Documentary Heritage underscores the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s annual theme for 2011, “William Penn’s Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity.”