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Prayer in schools struck down 50 years ago, still on books in PA - abc27 WHTM

Prayer in schools struck down 50 years ago, still on books in PA

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

A 1949 Pennsylvania law required bible reading in public schools.

Specifically, Section 1516 of the Public School code read, "At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each day."

Yes, that's mandatory Bible reading.

It was the law of the land in Pennsylvania until an Abington High School junior named Ellery Schempp challenged it. At first, the 16-year-old took a Koran to school to read while his classmates were reading the Bible.

"I was always very interested in science," Ellery said. "I didn't like the idea that the bible was being used to suggest things that were totally unscientific, like Noah's flood or the book of Genesis."

Schempp was sent to the principal's office for his protest, so he sent a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU  took up his cause and ultimately took the case to the Supreme Court. In 1963, the high court agreed with Ellery's position that government can't force prayer on students.

"The First Amendment is not all that complicated to understand," Schempp said with a laugh on Monday after a Capitol press conference recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court Decision. Schempp was introduced on the House floor as representatives passed a resolution proclaiming June as "Public School Religious Freedom Month."

"The Bible doesn't contain the word democracy," Schempp said. "It doesn't contain the idea of freedom of religion. The bible doesn't contain the concept of freedom of speech. None of our civic or patriotic notions are derived from the Bible at all."

Prayer is no longer mandated in Pennsylvania public schools, but that 1949 law requiring them, technically, is still on the books. State Representative Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) introduced a bill to repeal Section 1516 of the Public School Code.

"It seems like it should be a no-brainer," Cohen said with wry grin. "But it will take awhile before the legislature reaches that conclusion."

Cohen, and the rest of legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution last year proclaiming 2012 as "The Year of the Bible."

Cohen said his no-brainer bill doesn't have a prayer of passing even though the Supreme Court struck down forced prayer in schools half a century ago.

"Obviously people do not want to be seen as anti-God," Cohen said.

Religious leaders frequently suggest that schools were better when students said prayers and American society was better when religion played a larger role.

Atheists and agnostics say don't believe that.

"Prayer has not been removed from public schools," said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. "Every student, in every public school in the country, can pray to any God he wants to at anytime. What they can't do is force it on other people.

"To those that would say, 'Well, that's the big problem in America, and that's the reason we're having all the school shootings,' I would raise the awareness that every single school shooter comes from a Christian background and is not an atheist."

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