Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press), by New York University Journalism Professor Stephen D. Solomon, tells the story of how one student’s objection to mandatory school prayer and Bible reading led to one of the most controversial court cases of the 20th century. The decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, still reverberates in the battle over the role of religion in public life.
Religion in the public schools is a rallying cry for advocacy groups and an evolving story for journalists covering conflicts in the classroom over prayer, Bible reading, the Ten Commandments, and the teaching of creationism and intelligent design. While the issue crops up almost weekly in 21st century America, it began more than 50 years ago with an act of civil disobedience by a high school student. Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press), by New York University Journalism Professor Stephen D. Solomon, tells the story of how one student’s objection to mandatory school prayer and Bible reading led to one of the most controversial court cases of the 20th century. The decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, still reverberates in the battle over the role of religion in public life.
In a suburb north of Philadelphia, Pa., 16-year-old Ellery Schempp protested his public school’s compulsory prayer and Bible-reading period by reading silently from the Koran. Ejected from class for his actions, Schempp sued the school district. The Supreme Court’s decision in his favor was one of the most important rulings on religious freedom in the nation’s history. It prompted a conservative backlash that continues to this day—in the skirmishes over devotional exercises in the classroom, the current proposal for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision, and the debate in the 2008 Presidential campaign.
Solomon tells the personal and legal drama of the Schempp case: the family’s struggle against the ugly reactions of neighbors, and the impassioned courtroom clashes as brilliant lawyers on both sides argued about the meaning of religious freedom. But Schempp was not the only case challenging religious exercises in the schools at the time, and Ellery’s Protest describes the race to the Supreme Court among the attorneys for four such cases.
Solomon also explores the political, cultural, and religious roots of the controversy. Contrary to popular belief, liberal, activist justices did not kick God out of the public schools. Bitter conflict over school Bible reading had long divided Protestants and Catholics in the United States. Eventually, it was the American people themselves who removed most religious exercises from public education as a more religiously diverse nation chose tolerance over sectarianism. Ellery’s Protest offers a vivid account of the case that embodied this change, and a reminder that the most conservative justices of the 1950s and 60s not only signed on to the Schempp decision, but also strongly endorsed the separation of church and state. See Solomon’s website (www.stephendsolomon.com) for information about the Schempp case and about the most recent controversies over religious exercises in the public schools.
Solomon teaches First Amendment law and holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. He is co-author of Building 6: The Tragedy at Bridesburg, and his articles have appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine and Fortune.
Reporters interested in speaking with Solomon should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or email@example.com. For review copies of Ellery’s Protest, contact Mary Bisbee-Beek, University of Michigan Press, at 734.615.6477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.