Faith, family and `broken schools'

He was 14 when his atheist mother went to court to stop the daily classroom prayers at his junior high school in Baltimore.

He was 34 when he converted to Christianity after buying a Bible in the middle of the night at a San Francisco bookstore.

Now 55, William Murray was in Matthews on Sunday to tell his story - and that of his late mother, Madalyn Murray O'Hair - to the congregation at Mount Harmony Baptist Church.

O'Hair's lawsuit on her son's behalf caused the U.S. Supreme Court to ban publicly led prayer in public schools. It also launched the atheist movement in America, with O'Hair - long described as "the most hated woman in America" - as its leader.

After his conversion, Murray went on to become a speaker, author and lobbyist for evangelical Christian causes.

He and his mother last spoke in 1977.

On Sunday, Murray, now chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition in Washington, spoke with The Observer about school prayer, faith and the deaths of his mother, his brother Jon, and Murray's daughter Robin - all kidnapped, robbed (of $600,000) and killed in 1995 by a former O'Hair office manager with a lengthy criminal record. (Their bones were finally found this year in a shallow grave near San Antonio.)

Here's an edited transcript:

Should prayer be returned to public schools?

"The public schools in America are irrevocably broken. Prayer might put a patch on them. But we'd be better off starting over."

What's that mean?

"I like the Australian approach. Taxpayers there get x number of dollars per child for education. They can put it into a Christian school, a Muslim school or a Jewish school. Most of the children there attend public school because there's competition. And there's a threat: `If you're not going to teach my kid right, I'm going to put him over there, and you're going to lose this money.'"

So you back vouchers?

"Yes. What good does it do to have kids pray for a minute in the morning and then go through seven or eight hours of indoctrination that's totally counter to that one minute of prayer? I would rather have a system where parents who want faith-based education for their children have that opportunity. It's the kids who need this moral education the worst - the ones in the inner city, with one parent -- that can't afford it."

The N.C. legislature has said public schools can post the Ten Commandments. Why do that?

"Our children should know what Western civilization is about. The Ten Commandments are basically a secular code."

Except for the first few.

"Except for a couple. But it is the basis for our system of law."

But is it right in this increasingly diverse country to say we're a Judeo-Christian society?

"What we have done is make special allowances for other religions and peoples at the expense of the underlying culture. Example: In Brooklyn this year, during Ramadan, they set up mosques in the cafeteria for the Muslim kids. But if a Christian kindergartner wants his show-and-tell to be something he did in Sunday school, it's taken away and thrown in the trash by the teacher. This outward hostility toward the Judeo-Christian part of our nation has to stop. We're a nation of immigrants, but that does not mean that the latest immigrants get to force their beliefs down the majority's throat."

Did you kind of know something bad was going to happen to your mother?

"I had literally told her at one point that she was going to get herself killed messing around with the kind of people she was hiring. And that was when I was still an atheist. Let's put it this way: When I worked with her - between 1975 and 1977 - I kept a loaded .357 in the top right-hand drawer of my desk."

Any contact with the atheist movement in the post-O'Hair era?

"They were actually going to fight me in court over their bodies. They were going to cremate them, take them down to the atheist convention in Florida and then parade them around to other places. It was all about fund raising. It made me mad. I intervened. I had my mother cremated. Then I buried all three of them in a common, unmarked grave."