Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Fifty years ago, a 12-year-old named Bill Murray got suspended from school when he asked to be excused from the daily Bible reading and Lord’s Prayer that opened every school day in Maryland public schools. Young Murray told the media that he was an atheist and did not want to participate in the religious ceremony.

He and his single mother, Madalyn Murray, were denounced by preachers and politicians all over Maryland. Educators said the prayer created a quiet, reverent atmosphere to start the school day.

The school board also got a wave of criticism from civil liberties groups, non-Christian groups, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National Council of Churches. The Baptist Church, which brought universal religious toleration to North America in Roger Williams’s Rhode Island colony, was still in the Church-State separation coalition.

The school board responded to the criticism by saying any student who doesn’t like the prayer can be excused. In Murray v. Maryland, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that “anyone can walk out” was not voluntary for children, who have a special fear of ridicule by their peers. But 50 years later, the country is still divided over “voluntary prayer” in public school.

I paid close attention to the debate from the start because Bill Murray lived across town and was exactly my age. More important, my father Marvin Braiterman was about to become head of the Maryland Civil Liberties Union’s legal panel. He had a national reputation in the Jewish community as an expert on church-state issues and had recently published U.a guide for Jewish parents about religion in the public schools.

He opposed prayer in public schools as a parent of Jewish children, and an expert on Constitutional law, but he did not sue the schools or ask that his children be excused. He was afraid those actions might start an anti-Semitic backlash and subject his children to ridicule.

I had no strong feelings about saying the prayer. It had always been done by everyone without question, and I was just a kid. But when Murray got suspended, I thought he should not be forced to do something against his principles.

By the time the school board said Bill could be excused from the prayer, he had been beaten and ridiculed in school; his teachers had expressed their disapproval of what he’d done; and the Murrays’ house had been vandalized. Preachers and politicians had denounced them.

Bill’s mother, Madalyn Murray, was so angry by then that excusing her son was not enough. She sued to have the prayer and Bible reading banned from public schools.

(Several years later, Mrs. Murray, probably the most hated woman in Maryland, married Richard O’Hair and became the infamous Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was often called the most hated woman in America.)

The U.S. Supreme Court merged the Murray case with another school prayer case called Schemp v. Abington Township. The Schemps were Unitarians. Right after the school year ended in 1963, the Court ruled 8-1 in each case that prayer in school was unconstitutional. In addition to outlawing the establishment of one church or religion over others, the ruling said, the Bill of Rights meant government may not establish religion over non-religion. They also ruled that allowing any child to walk out of the prayer did not make it voluntary enough. Children have a special fear of being ridiculed by their peers.

Bill Murray was constantly harassed in high school and always said defiantly, “Is this how good Christians act?”

“Well, is it how good Christians act?” my father asked when I suggested Bill brought a lot of harassment on himself by responding to it that way.

When school opened in September 1963, the principal told us he was against the Murray decision, but the school would obey the law. I defended the decision in countless informal debates. Most people disagreed with me. The father of my best friend said I was wrong about the issue, but right to support my father.

A fundamentalist classmate said, “Religion is for everybody, regardless, even if it’s forced.”

Maryland Attorney General Francis Burch, who defended the prayer before the Supreme Court, ran for governor on the issue. My father debated him several times, once for an hour on radio.

Burch’s standard opening was that this was an argument “between God and no God, between Americanism and the antithesis of Americanism, that the Murray decision struck a death blow to religion.”

My father laughed off the death blow exaggeration, but he got serious when he talked about the danger of calling people who disagree the antithesis of Americanism.

When he pointed out to a church audience that lots of religious groups were against state-sponsored prayer in schools, and added that the Schemps in Pennsylvania were Unitarians, not atheists, the audience exploded in belly laughs. “What do they think of Jews?” my father wondered.

Burch lost a close three-way Democratic primary for governor. While the Democrats fought, the unopposed Republican candidate waited to see if he would run against the liberal, the machine candidate (Burch), or the segregationist.

When the segregationist won the Democratic nomination, all opponents of racial discrimination, including newspapers, the chamber of commerce, and most ministers, rushed to support the Republican, who won easily. His name was Spiro Agnew.

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