NEW YORK – He was the “Murray” in the famous 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Murray v. Curlett, that helped ban public schools from initiating prayer.
But Monday he was applauding the high court’s latest ruling, which determined a town council has a constitutional right to begin its proceedings with an invocation to the Almighty.
William J. Murray was a teenager when his mother, the well-known and reviled atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, filed a lawsuit on his behalf that challenged a 1905 Baltimore school board rule requiring each school day to start with Bible reading or the Lord’s Prayer.
Sharply parting ways with his mother’s strident atheism, Murray has since become a Christian minister and now promotes the free exercise of religion in the public square as chairman of the Washington-based Religious Freedom Coalition.
He told WND in an interview Monday that the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is “a victory for the right not to be offended.”
“Today you can’t have a cross on someone’s grave, because it might offend a non-Christian who walks through the graveyard,” Murray said.
“This case refutes a claim made by the political left today that a person has an inherent right in the Constitution of the United States that says nobody can say anything or write anything that offends me or my ideas,” he said.
‘Praying to God offended her’
Murray is the author of seven books, including “My Life Without God,” republished by WND Books, which chronicles his difficult early life in the dysfunctional home of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who in the 1960s and 197os was regarded as the nation’s “most hated woman.”
Upon returning to the U.S. after the Soviet Union refused to give her political asylum, O’Hair took offense after she enrolled her son into Woodbourne Junior High School in Baltimore, where the school day began with the students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and, in some classes, saying the Lord’s Prayer.
“My mother went to court to argue the Establishment Clause, arguing there needs to be a wall separating church and state,” Murray said.
The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment makes no mention of a “wall of separation,” stating merely: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
But Murray v. Curlett was a companion to two other cases that led to the end of school-initiated prayer.
Murray said his mother wasn’t really interested in constitutional integrity.
“Her real problem was that she was an atheist, and praying to God offended her, just as she found offensive the words ‘under God’ added to Pledge of Allegiance,” he said.
Shortly after the 1963 Supreme Court decision, O’Hair founded American Atheists, which describes itself today as “the premier organization fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”
In 1980, Murray underwent a Christian conversion that caused him to repent from the role he played with his mother in the Supreme Court case.
His mother disappeared in 1995 along with her son, Jon Murray, and granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair. Ten years later, they were found to have been brutally murdered by a former American Atheists employee.
Writing for the majority in the decision announced Monday, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued the kind of prayers that begin town council meetings have a “permissible ceremonial purpose” and are “not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”
Murray said he’s “looked everywhere in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and I can’t find anything about a supposed right not to be offended.”
“This is the point of Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Town of Greece case today,” he said. “It’s push-back from the Supreme Court saying you cannot stop a ceremonial practice, whether it has religious content or not, simply because somebody says it offends them.”
In his majority opinion, Kennedy said ceremonial prayer is “but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs.”
“The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose,” the justice wrote. “It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”
Gift of freedom
Expanding on a speech he gave at the National Religious Freedom Day in January, Murray said, “If I don’t have the right to offend somebody today, then I don’t have the right of free speech.”
Murray argued there is no government ceremony that isn’t going to offend somebody.
“If we want to go down this track, then people will end up like sheep where we are afraid to say anything to anybody unless all we talk about is the weather,” he said.
Murray referenced NBA owner Donald Sterling, who is under fire for a recording of a private racist rant, and Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who resigned under pressure after homosexual-rights activists expressed outrage that he had donated $1,000 to a ballot initiative protecting traditional marriage.
“It’s outrageous that two U.S. citizens like Donald Sterling and Brendan Eich had threatened their legitimate property rights as U.S. citizens simply because someone found politically offensive something they said or did,” Murray commented. “The idea that you can strip a person of their property simply because they have offended someone is a step too far.”
Murray also cited the case of British citizen Paul Weston, a candidate for the European Parliament who was arrested in the United Kingdom quoting a passage critical of Islam from Winston Churchill’s 1899 book “The River War.”
He said the arrest for quoting Churchill “is the epitome of where we are going with this right not to be offended.”
Writing in a WND column in January about the speech he gave at the National Religious Freedom Day this year, Murray insisted: “We must not retreat to where most Europeans find themselves today, fearful of publicly holding an opinion the government finds offensive to some group or the other.”
Instead, Murray argued that freedom in the U.S. is a “gift from God” and the core of that freedom is religious liberty.
“As religious liberty fades, so does every freedom we enjoy,” he wrote. “Without religious freedom there is not freedom of speech, as can be seen in other nations. If a government can restrain us from speaking our faith, it can restrain us in any regard.”