After 30 years, participants recall school-prayer ruling O'Hair keeps 'faith'

son gets religion

June 14, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

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

But more than their ages have changed since the sharp-tongued Northeast Baltimore mother, her harassed and ostracized teen-age son and their aggressive, nonconformist lawyer succeeded in removing prayer and Bible-reading from the nation's public schools.

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

Many minds have adjusted, 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.

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

"I don't see [the court victory] as a high point," the former Women's Auxiliary Army Corps lieutenant said last week from her American Atheist GHQ (for general headquarters) in Austin, Texas.

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

Mr. Kerpelman, still a nonconformist, 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. He said he may celebrate Thursday by getting himself arrested in Ocean City for practicing law, but he'll also take a dip in the Atlantic.

In Baltimore, the anniversary of the school-prayer decision will be commemorated in a big way.

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 will be "Miracle Day '93," the beginning of a yearlong campaign by "godly voters" to "replace those in Washington with godly men."

Mr. 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."

He scheduled five busy days in this area before the revival. Saturday was set aside for selling and autographing his autobiography, "My Life Without God," at the His Way Christian Book Store in Howard County's Normandy Shopping Center. Yesterday, he appeared at Covenant Baptist Church in Columbia and at Rockland United Methodist Church in Ellicott City.

Today and tomorrow, he will be preaching and answering questions on the radio and on Wednesday is a Baltimore Prayer Breakfast. Thursday's program in the downtown Arena will begin at 7 p.m. with a musical prelude, "The Lamb Has Overcome."

Planning to appear with the former atheist are musicians Tom McDonald and Phil Driscoll and six other preachers, including the Rev. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ.

Strong words

Mr. 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 teen-age 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."

Mr. Murray said he was counting on religious people of different denominations, but who agree that "America is being led to hell on earth" and is in danger of being "as cursed as Sodom," to join him for the "Billy Graham-type" revival. He said he invited the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore to participate, but had received no response.

Local congregations indicating enthusiasm for his effort include Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville and the Perry Hall and Hampstead Baptist churches.

Although Mr. Murray's wife Nancy -- his third -- is not part of his ministry, he said, his 15-year-old daughter, Jade, is. He said this young "star athlete" and figure skating champion told him when she was 11 that she wished to "accept Christ."

'Fabricated life'

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