Pennsylvania law, like that of four other states, included a statute compelling school districts to perform Bible readings in the mornings before classes. Twenty-five states had laws allowing "optional" Bible reading, with the remainder of the states having no laws supporting or rejecting Bible reading. In eleven of those states with laws supportive of Bible reading or state-sponsored prayer, the state courts had declared the laws to be unconstitutional.
A related case was that brought by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, mother of plaintiff William J. Murray III (b. 1946), who filed suit against the local school system in Murray v. Curlett to prohibit compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In 1963, she founded the group American Atheists (originally known as the Society of Separationists). The Murray case was consolidated with Schempp's case on appeal to the Supreme Court.
During the first trial in federal district court, Edward Schempp and his children testified as to specific religious doctrines purveyed by a literal reading of the Bible "which were contrary to the religious beliefs which they held and to their familial teaching" (177 F. Supp. 398, 400). The children testified that all of the doctrines to which they referred were read to them at various times as part of the exercises. Edward Schempp testified at the second trial that he had considered having his children excused from attendance at the exercises but decided against it for several reasons, including his belief that the children's relationships with their teachers and classmates would be adversely affected.
The district court ruled in Schempp's favor, and struck down the Pennsylvania statute. The school district appealed the ruling. While that appeal was pending, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the statute to allow children to be excused from the exercises upon the written request of their parents. This change did not satisfy Schempp, however, and he continued his action against the school district, charging that the amendment of the law did not change its nature as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Because of the change in the law, the Supreme Court had responded to the school district's appeal by vacating the first ruling and remanding the case to the district court. The district court again found for Schempp.
The Supreme Court upheld the District Court's decision and found the Pennsylvania prayer statute unconstitutional by virtue of the facts in the case, as well as the clear line of precedent established by the Supreme Court. In writing the opinion of the Court, Justice Tom C. Clark stated, "This Court has decisively settled that the First Amendment's mandate [in the Establishment Clause] has been made wholly applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment."
What was unexpected, however, were the ideas expressed in the second portion of Justice Clark's opinion written for the majority. The Court's recognition of religious ideals as valuable to the culture of the United States in that opinion are generally not cited much by either side of the church-state debate when discussing the case and the effect it had on the United States. Clark said that the Court was of the feeling that no matter the religious nature of the citizenry, the government at all levels, as required by the Constitution, must remain neutral in matters of religion "while protecting all, prefer[ring] none, and disparag[ing] none." The Court had clearly rejected "the contention by many that the Establishment Clause forbade only governmental preference of one faith over another." Justice Clark added, "We repeat and again reaffirm that neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person 'to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.' Neither can it constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religions as against non-believers, and neither can it aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs." Such prohibited behavior was self-evident in the Pennsylvania law requiring Bible reading (and allowing recitation of the Lord's Prayer) in its public schools. The Court recognized the value of such ideal neutrality from lessons of history when government and religion were either fully fused or cooperative with one another and religious liberty was nonexistent or seriously curtailed.