The Lawyer Who Helped Remove Mandatory Bible Readings from Public Schools Has Died

In 1963, Madalyn Murray O’Hair gained notoriety for her role in the Supreme Court case that removed mandatory Bible readings from public schools. Less noticed, but equally important, was her lawyer Leonard J. Kerpelman. Kerpelman took on her case pro bono in 1960 and successfully argued in front of the justices years later, leading to an eventual 8-1 victory.

Late last week, the 88-year-old Kerpelman died from complications from a tumor.

Leonard J. Kerpelman (Jerry Jackson – The Baltimore Sun)

“I see no constitutional objection to the study of religion, history of religion, or the study of the Bible as literature,” he told The [Baltimore] 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.

After the case was resolved, Mr. Kerpelman had few dealings with O’Hair, who left Baltimore in 1964 and disappeared in 1995. Her mutilated remains, along with those of a son and granddaughter, were identified in a remote part of Texas in 2001.

There’s an interesting passage in Ann Rowe Seaman‘s biography of O’Hair, America’s Most Hated Woman, that details the way Kerpelman ended up getting involved in this particular case in the first place:

[ACLU attorney Fred Weisgal] wanted to join [O'Hair's lawsuit] with an almost identical suit the ACLU was already involved in, School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp. The Schempps’ three children were compelled by Pennsylvania law to listen to Bible verses over the loudspeaker each day. They’d won all their suits to ban the practice, and the school district continued to appeal until it reached the Supreme Court.

Madalyn wanted her name first on the combined suits’ caption page, so it would be the citation name throughout history. Hers had an earlier docket number than the Schempps’. When Weisgal told her it was alphabetical — Abington Township would come before Murray — she blew up, and their relationship ended with Weisgal saying, “Madalyn, go fuck yourself!”

She replaced him with Leonard Kerpelman, a Baltimore native with a taste for unpopular civil liberties causes. The genial 36-year-old had just forced reform of the local jury system, after discovering that jurors were not randomly selected from voter lists but cherry-picked using their addresses.

Not hard to see why they parted ways after the victory.

Dave Silverman, the current President of American Atheists, the group O’Hair founded, issued this statement to me last night (via email):

Millions of children go to freer, more tolerant schools in part because of Mr. Kerpelman’s legal expertise. He helped make school a more open environment for atheists and theists alike. American Atheists mourns his loss.

(Thanks to Matt for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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