50th Anniversary Of SCOTUS Ruling Prompts PA ‘Public School Religious Freedom Month’ Bill

It seemed only appropriate to Pennsylvania Representative Mark Cohen (D-Phil) to commemorate a SCOTUS decision on separation of church and state with a bill to make the whole month of June “Public School Religious Freedom Month.” Image @ACLU

It seemed only appropriate to Pennsylvania Representative Mark Cohen (D-Phil) to commemorate a SCOTUS decision on separation of church and state with a bill making the whole month of June “Public School Religious Freedom Month.” Image @ACLU

This year is the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision, School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, which the SCOTUS arrived at with an 8-1 decision. The case revolved around the Pennsylvania schools and their daily Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. While students could be excused from participating with a written note from their parents, Edward Schempp (a Unitarian Universalist) believed that making his son participate in the morning ritual violated his First and the Fourteenth Amendment rights. He filed suit and the case went all the way up. When the Supreme Court decided in his favor, Pennsylvania, and the 3 other states that required Bible reading and prayers, were forced to stop the practice.

State Representative Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) has introduced a proposal to commemorate that decision in the state of Pennsylvania. He and seven of his colleagues (one of whom is a Republican) introduced HR 351 to formally designate the month of June 2013 as “Public School Religious Freedom Month” in Pennsylvania. In a memo Cohen wrote in April, he explained why:

“This resolution recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp handed down on June 17, 1963, which struck down public school-sponsored Bible reading and prayer as unconstitutional. You may recall that Pennsylvania schools were required by law to provide prayer even though it often conflicted with the personal religious perspectives of nonbelievers, agnostics, atheists and believers of many different faiths. School-sponsored Bible reading and prayer also violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution providing for separation of religion and government. We must remember the importance of the First Amendment and the individual rights of others to prevent regression and repeat these actions in the future.  Please join me in co-sponsoring this important resolution.”

By the way, the Associated Press reported that the resolution passed unanimously on Monday; they were wrong. It is still in the “House Committee on Education.” If they had done any research into the Pennsylvania House, they would have known better. In fact, that House has approved several explicitly Christian resolutions recently. They declared last year, 2012, as “The Year Of The Bible,” which didn’t go over very well with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, among others. They filed a lawsuit against the Representative who introduced it, Rick Saccone, soon after it was adopted. Though the case was dismissed because of “legislative immunity,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner lambasted it:

“At best, H.R. 535 is a benign attempt to reaffirm the underlying principles of the Reagan proclamation of 1983.  At worst, it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly.”

The Republicans in the Pennsylvania House also declared October 2012 as “Prayer Month” and May 3, 2012 a “Day Of Prayer.” Then, not happy with all of that, they proceeded to declare May 6-12 of this year as “Religious History Week.” By “religious,” they really meant only Christianity, of course, because all them other religions is heathen! They even tried to remove anonymity for anyone who engages in a lawsuit to uphold the separation of church and state. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what William Penn would like to see in the state that bears his name.