Leonard J. Kerpelman, attorney in school prayer case, dies

Legal gadfly took landmark case to Supreme Court in 1963 and won

  • Leonard J. Kerpelman
Leonard J. Kerpelman (JERRY JACKSON, The Baltimore…)
September 26, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Leonard J. Kerpelman, a civic iconoclast and legal gadfly who is best known for representing atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case that outlawed prayer in public schools, died Thursday at Sinai Hospital of complications from a tumor. The Mount Washington resident was 88.

"It's always good to have a person who speaks out on a variety of issues like Leonard. You may not agree with them, and you don't have to buy their arguments, but you have to admire the advocacy of his position," said J. Joseph Curran Jr., former Maryland attorney general.

"I thought he was a smart guy and I used to see him around downtown," said Mr. Curran. "He took on unpopular causes but was not an unpopular person. I always thought he was a regular sort of fellow."

"He was basically an honest and decent person who marched to his own drum, if anyone did. He was a character of the highest order who was always on the right side of his causes," said former state Sen. Julian L. "Jack" Lapides. "He was a true Baltimore character."

Leonard Jules Kerpelman, the son of attorneys, was born in Baltimore and raised on Holmes Avenue. His mother, Fannie Kurland Kerpelman, was one of the first three women to receive a diploma from the University of Maryland School of Law. She and his father, Morris Kerpelman, graduated in 1923.

After graduating from Polytechnic Institute in 1941, Mr. Kerpelman earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1945 from the Johns Hopkins University. He earned a law degree in 1949 from the University of Maryland.

Mr. Kerpelman, who had suffered from polio as a child and was blind in one eye, was exempted from military service during World War II and worked as a riveter at the old Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River.

In a legal career that spanned four decades, Mr. Kerpelman began practicing law with an aunt, Helen Sherry, and later established his own firm, which for years was in the Equitable Bank Building.

From the beginning, Mr. Kerpelman had a flair for espousing unusual and unpopular cases. By 1957, he was earning headlines when he represented a Colombian promoter who wanted to bring bullfighting to Baltimore.

The case that brought Mr. Kerpelman lasting fame revolved around William J. Murray III, who attended what was then Woodbourne Junior High. He was the son of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a Baltimore homemaker, atheist and former Communist.

Mrs. O'Hair was opposed to prayer in public school classrooms and stated she was going to keep young William home until the prayers stopped.

Mr. Kerpelman stepped in and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 1963 the justices ruled 8-1 on the plaintiffs' behalf.

Mr. Kerpelman contended that the First Amendment to the Constitution required the establishment of a "wall of separation between church and state," The Baltimore Sun reported in 1963.

"I see no constitutional objection to the study of religion, history of religion, or the study of the Bible as literature," he told The Sun in 1963. "But this ceremony is sectarian, and it is impossible to have such a ceremony that is not sectarian."

After the decision, both client and attorney were vilified and accused of taking God out of the classroom and leading the nation down the road of atheism.

"It was certainly an interesting and high-profile case, and prayer in school is still the subject of some controversy today," said Mr. Curran.

"He always said you could 'still pray in school, but the state can not mandate what prayer you must say,' " said a daughter, Antonia K. Fowler of Reisterstown.

In the 1960s, Mr. Kerpelman, who had been an early and outspoken supporter of civil rights and a member of the NAACP, was appalled by the 1965 riots in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood.

"I cannot accept them as human beings, the manner in which Negro leaders have drawn the Watts carnage to their bosom and have declared it to be, not their shame, but their glory," he told The Sun at the time.

"Racial progress for Negroes requires greater civic responsibility," he said, adding that "until there was a leadership change," he was "opposed to any further extension of civil rights for Negroes."

"He left the NAACP and never rejoined," said Ms. Fowler.

He established Fathers United for Equal Rights, a men's rights group that sought equal treatment for men in custody and divorce litigation in Maryland, and wrote a book, "Divorce: A Guide for Men."

"I remember him coming to Annapolis when I was chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee to discuss the divorce issue," said Mr. Curran, who was then a state senator.

"He was a strong advocate when it came to custody and visitation issues for men, as courts tended to rule in favor of women to raise children, especially young children," said Mr. Curran. "I don't think we necessarily sided with him, but he was a good spokesman on this issue."

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