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School prayer case marks 30th anniversary

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Madalyn Mays Murray O'Hair is 74. William J. Murray is 47. Leonard J. Kerpelman is 67.

More than their ages have changed since the sharp-tongued Baltimore woman, her harassed and ostracized teenage son and their aggressive, non-conformist lawyer succeeded in removing prayer and Bible reading from the nation's public schools.

It happened 30 years ago this past Thursday. The Supreme Court handed down one of its most controversial opinions ever, and legal, cultural and religious history was made.

Many minds have adjusted, and many others have hardened. Two opposing groups of Americans have no doubts _ conservative Christians say the country lost its way; civil libertarians say it came to its senses.

O'Hair, still a feisty atheist, will not be celebrating the anniversary of the decision that came on June 17, 1963, in two related cases _ hers and Pennsylvania high school student Ellory Schempp's.

"I don't see (the court victory) as a high point," O'Hair said recently from her American Atheist GHQ (for general headquarters) in Austin, Texas.

"It was a freaky kind of decision," O'Hair said. "Starting from scratch today, we would lose it. The right wing has taken over the country."

Kerpelman, still a non-conformist, still living in Baltimore, is preoccupied with his uphill battle to overturn his disbarment by the Maryland Court of Appeals three years ago _ the legal establishment's rape of his good name, as he put it, for being disruptive and disrespectful.

The student who stood up at the back of his class in Woodbourne Junior High School to rebuff a teacher's Bible reading as "ridiculous" is now the Rev. Bill Murray, a Southern Baptist and a fundamentalist evangelist based in Coppell, Texas.

For him and perhaps for thousands of like-minded Americans, Thursday was "Miracle Day '93," the beginning of a yearlong campaign by "godly voters" to "replace those in Washington with godly men."

Murray said last week that he hoped to fill the Baltimore Arena Thursday night with praying, singing Christians who regret as much as he does that his mother's lawsuit on his behalf "kicked prayer, the Bible and God from the city's schools."

Murray has strong words about the legacy of the Supreme Court's decision in Murray vs. Curlett and Abington Township School District vs. Schempp.

"June 17, 1963, was the first day Baltimore's children could not pray in schools," he said. "Before that date, there had never been a murder in a Baltimore school. The nurses gave out aspirins and teachers taught English, math, history and the sciences.

"Thirty years later, there is a Baltimore schools police force to deal with violence and drugs in the schools. The nurses give out condoms and implant birth-control devices that allow teenage girls to have unprotected sex.

"The teachers deal in social engineering, with subjects unheard of 30 years ago. The students graduate, unable to fill out employment applications."

In his book, My Life Without God, Murray describes financial problems of the William J. Murray Evangelistic Association that he says were caused by "a campaign against me in the media" by his mother and brother.

"For years, every time they were on radio or TV, they would say I was still an atheist," he writes. "They would claim I was in ministry only for the money."

In last week's interview, he said that he and his mother have not spoken to each other for years, although he prays for her and sends her birthday cards.

He also is estranged from his older daughter, Robin Murray-O'Hair, now 28, and his younger brother, Jon Garth Murray, 40.

Both are on the staff of the atheist organization in Texas and dominated by his mother, Murray said.

In a recent interview, O'Hair wanted to talk only about her American Atheists Library and Archives _ "the most significant collection of atheist books, magazines and pamphlets in the world, the most important voice for atheists in the nation" _ and not about her older son, her past, not even the 1963 Supreme Court decision.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says in this month's issue of its magazine that the 1963 opinion was "actually quite affirming of religion." O'Hair agrees.

Although "prayers are no damn good for anybody and religion is a deleterious fantasy solution for children," O'Hair lamented, "nobody" _ except perhaps the atheists she has organized _ "dares to criticize religion per se."

Her son, William, said he gradually turned away from atheism and toward the Bible in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Three years ago, he earned a degree from Sweetwater Bible College in Phoenix.

It was one of many twists and turns in an unusual life.

One of the more important was on a September morning in 1960, when he walked with his mother down a corridor of Woodbourne Junior High and she "saw the Pledge of Allegiance on a wall and heads bowed in prayer in a classroom, and she became absolutely livid."

That moment led to their odyssey through the courts and their fame, he said.

The Rev. Murray now thinks the loss of "one minute of prayer in the Baltimore public schools" is no longer a central issue.

"More important," he said, "is that the case has been the precedent for removing all Judeo-Christian values from the school system. You can't tell a child that premarital sex is wrong. You can't tell a child that prostitution is wrong. The concept of right and wrong is gone."