Advocate discusses importance of separation of church and state

Though burning Qurans have been used as signs of protest, reading one was all that Ellery Schempp needed to do to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to enforce an absence of religion in public schools.

Schempp, an advisory board member and speaker for the national Secular Student Alliance, a non-profit organization that aims to keep religious values out of decisions made by the U.S. government, spoke in the Marshall Student Center’s Henderson Room  on Thursday about the importance of the separation of church and state.

When he was 16 years old, Schempp said he was offended by the Biblical passages that were read at the beginning of each school day. In 1956, he brought a copy of the Quran to school instead of a Christian Bible and was sent to the principal’s office for disobedient behavior.

When he returned home from school, he said he wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to request their support in removing the Bible readings from his school day — an act he said violated the U.S. Constitution.

Seven years later, as Schempp was finishing his course work at Tufts University in Massachusetts, his civil suit Abington School District v. Schempp made history with an 8-1 court ruling that made Bible readings in public schools unconstitutional.

“There’s never going to be an end to this,” Schempp said of the constant fight for a secular government. “I pray for a separate church and state. Amen.”

Schempp said he thinks religion is used to defend views that ostracize sects of people, citing examples of anti-gay sentiments, abstinence-only education and the abolition of abortion as examples where policymakers allow religious ideologies to influence state decisions.

Molly Martin, a senior majoring in biology and president of Freethinkers@USF, said she agreed that “by ensuring secularism, we protect the rights of everyone.”

“The biggest issue we, as a society, face in dealing with religion is acceptance and tolerance of views or opinions that differ from our own,” she said.

Martin said Schempp’s appearance has been met with resistance on campus. Chalking and fliers advertising the events have been vandalized and torn down, she said.

“It is very sad to me that such intolerance is still in the mainstream,” she said, “although it is warming to see that more and more people, including people of faith, are beginning to become more accepting of gays, lesbians and other minorities, and there are some even willing to engage in open dialogue with nonbelievers.”

ACLU members came in support of Schempp at the lecture. The group helped fund his appearance, advocated for students to join their organization and asked attendees to vote in Florida’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections Tuesday.

“I want to learn more about the process,” Caitlin Nagy, a biology major and member of Freethinkers@USF, said after attending the lecture. “(I want to) pass that knowledge on to other people as to how secularism in government is good.”