BALTIMORE – Activist attorney Leonard J. Kerpelman, best known for representing atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case that outlawed prayer in public schools, died Sept. 26 at a Baltimore hospital of complications from a tumor. He was 88.
He took on numerous, often unpopular causes during his long career that ended in disbarment in 1989, in part for disrupting a judicial hearing. And he was known as a colorful figure in Baltimore, driving a 1948 Cadillac and at times jumping into public fountains.
Leonard Jules Kerpelman, the son of attorneys, was born in 1925 in Baltimore. He suffered from polio as a child and was blind in one eye. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1945 from Johns Hopkins University and a law degree in 1949 from the University of Maryland.
The case that brought him lasting fame revolved around O’Hair, who was opposed to prayer in public schools and stated she was going to keep her son home until the prayers stopped.
“I see no constitutional objection to the study of religion, history of religion, or the study of the Bible as literature,” Kerpelman said in a Baltimore Sun interview in 1963. “But this ceremony is sectarian, and it is impossible to have such a ceremony that is not sectarian.”
He took the case to the Supreme Court, winning an 8-1 decision.
The outcome brought on waves of hate mail and other forms for criticism, which Kerpelman seemed to relish. In a letter published in the Washington Post, he wrote: “Those whose letters contained threats of physical violence: Please contact my secretary for an appointment. There is a considerable waiting list.”