Not his mother's son

Legacy: William J. Murray, son of atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, is trying to atone for her successful effort to get prayer banned from public schools.

March 15, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

ANNAPOLIS -- His big, loud mom, famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, is silent now, presumed dead and dismembered somewhere in the dirt of Texas hill country. But son William J. Murray, her one-time accomplice and latter-day foe, hasn't stopped fighting against her legacy.

So it was that Murray, 53, showed up yesterday at the Capitol to testify in favor of school prayer before a Maryland legislative committee, still trying to undo what O'Hair did nearly 40 years ago.

Murray was a ninth-grader then at Woodbourne Junior High (now Chinquapin Middle School), and like every other student he recited the Lord's Prayer each morning. Or he did until Mom found out. She threw a fit, yanking him from school, then filing suit in Baltimore Superior Court on his behalf. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1963 ruled in his favor, 8-1, prompting schools all over the United States to pull prayers and Bible readings from the daily schedule.

The Murrays were atheists then; communists, too -- godless Reds tucked into pious suburbia in a noisy rowhouse off Loch Raven Boulevard. Young Murray's schoolmates had already beat him up once for harboring dangerous ideas, when he cheekily delivered a geography report on the Soviet Union. After the atheist lawsuit, life only got worse.

He reacted by going a little wild, and within a few years he'd acquired an arrest record, a pregnant girlfriend and a drinking problem. But things were still mostly OK with Mom, who'd had her own share of run-ins with police by then.

Then Murray got rebellious. He began thinking about God. He had a fearsome nightmare featuring an avenging angel pointing a sword at the Bible. And, by the early 1980s, he was telling anybody who would listen that he'd renounced everything his mother stood for. Mom never spoke to him again without either a snarl or a shout.

Nowadays, coming at the school prayer issue from the other side, Murray walks with ease among the nation's powerful, dropping anecdotes of the last time he bumped into Congressional majority leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, in the halls of Washington.

He can show you photos of himself with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms and both of the George Bushes. He leads a political action committee, an evangelistic association and the Religious Freedom Coalition. He has written five books, most recently the 1995 "Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools."

Check his speaking schedule and you'll find him at the West County Assembly of God in Chesterfield, Mo., one week, at the First Baptist Church in West Monroe, La., in another. And his home in Northern Virginia is bigger and nicer than any place he ever lived with his mom.

Yet to some people Murray will always have to live down his past: the boy whose mother was The Atheist. But that's OK with him, too, as long as it helps the cause.

"In most of what we're working on," he said before testifying yesterday, "the subject [of my mother] never comes up. But when we're working on an issue like this, which is maybe 20 percent of the time, then it gets intensive, and I use it to my advantage. ... It gives me a unique point of view."

For example, it lets him tell the Ways and Means Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates, as he did yesterday, "I endured perhaps five years of Marxist-Leninist study classes in the basement of my home in Baltimore during my teens."

The subject of his mother's current silence is another matter altogether. It has also earned Murray some time in the public spotlight in recent years, although not in a way he's relished.

O'Hair went missing in August 1995 along with Murray's daughter Robin (Madalyn had adopted her during his dissolute days of wandering) and his brother Jon. For more than three years, newspaper reporters and a few disinterested policeman sniffed at their cold trail, offering theories ranging from a kidnapping to a well-planned escape to New Zealand.

Then a Texas newspaper man and an Arizona private eye cracked the case. Federal prosecutors now believe O'Hair, her son and adopted daughter were kidnapped and then murdered and dismembered after weeks in captivity, while their captors drained bank accounts and cashed in the family's gold coins.

No one has yet found their remains, although DNA tests of blood samples found at some storage lockers matched up with O'Hair's and Jon Murray's.

That leaves William Murray as the family's unlikely standard bearer. But in carrying out the role he has spared no scorn. Nor has he yet relented in the fight to restore prayer to the schools.

"I probably get involved with a dozen [bills] a year like this one," he said yesterday, before speaking on behalf of a bill that would allow Maryland public school students to say prayers at graduation ceremonies or other school events.

Legislative leaders say the bill was virtually dead on arrival. They say they'd prefer to see what the Supreme Court says about such laws before taking any action here.

So, once again William Murray finds himself awaiting a verdict of the highest court in the land, this time rooting for an altogether different result.

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