The Religious Freedom Page

Abbington School District v. Schempp
Murray v. Curlett

374 U.S. 203 (1963)

Facts of the Case:

Both cases involved the reading of Bible passages prior to class in public schools. Schempp challenged a Pennsylvania law that stated that, "at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon written request of his parent or guardian." This was disallowed by a federal district court. Murray challenged the requirement of the Baltimore school board that the Lord's Prayer be recited prior to the beginning of the day's classes. This was upheld by both a state court and the Maryland Court of Appeals.


The Court ruled 8-1 against of allowing the reciting of the Bible verses and the Lord's Prayer.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Clark)

The test for assessing the violation of the Establishment Clause can be summarized as "what are the purpose and primary effect of the enactment. If either is the advancement of inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the Constitution. That is to say that to withstand the structures of the Establishment Clause there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion." To violate the Free Exercise Clause, it is only necessary to show a coercive effect of a law's enactment. That these might merely be "minor encroachments on the First Amendment" is irrelevant. The Court does not disallow the comparative study of religion in public schools, but these religious observances were not instituted for such studies.


As with Engel, the Court determined that the voluntary nature of such religious exercises (allowing parents to exempt their children) did not prevent the statutes from violating the Establishment Clause.

RealAudio of Oral Argument


   Oral Argument.

Get the RealAudio Player from Progressive Networks to listen to the argument.

Copyright © The Religious Freedom Page.