When Chief Justice Earl Warren announced “Number 119—Murray versus Curlett” on the morning of February 27, a packed courtroom and news gallery leaned forward eagerly to hear long-awaited U. S. Supreme Court arguments in two emotionally-charged cases involving public school opening exercises.
Young but balding Leonard J. Kerpelman had the first hour. He represented the Murrays, a Baltimore public school student and his mother who are atheists. They object to a 1905 rule which requires each city school to open with “the reading, without comment, of a chapter in the Holy Bible and/or the use of the Lord’s Prayer.”
Kerpelman argued that the majority (4–3) of Maryland’s highest court had erred in upholding the constitutionality’ of the rule. “What we have here,” he contended, “is a religious ceremony … which is sectarian.” He said it amounts to an “establishment of religion” and interferes with student Murray’s “free exercise” of his religion in violation of the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise thereof.”
Visibly on edge, Justice Potter Stewart (lone dissenter in the highly controversial 1962 decision against the New York Board of Regents’ prayer) asked whether striking down these practices would not interfere with the free exercise of religion of those who favor them.
Kerpelman replied that no one is free to exercise religious practices which amount to an “establishment of religion.” Whereas the Lord’s Prayer “is a beautiful prayer” and the Bible is excellent literature, both being “Christian,” school opening exercises based on them, he said, would prefer the Christian religion.
To illustrate the effect of school opening exercises, Kerpelman, ...1
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