Senior federal judge dies

Published 9:11 am Monday, September 8, 2008

Senior U.S. District Judge William Brevard Hand, appointed to the bench by President Nixon in 1971 and later known for his ruling in support of school prayer, died Saturday in Mobile. He was 84.

Hand died one week after he fell and broke his leg, said his clerk, Deborah Farmer. Hand had heart surgery about five years ago and complications left him weak in his left leg.

Federal court records show that Hand had been active in cases as recently as last month.

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One of Hand’s best known rulings concerned religion in public schools.

In 1982, after a local lawyer sued to remove prayer in Alabama’s public schools, Hand ruled in favor of classroom prayer, saying essentially that a federal law striking down the practice didn’t apply to states.

His ruling was eventually overturned on appeal, and a group of local Christians, in response, sued to remove from classrooms textbooks that espoused what they called “secular humanism,” a “godless religion.”

Hand received that argument favorably: “If this court is compelled to purge, ‘God is great, God is good, we thank Him for our daily food’ from the classroom, this court must also purge from the classroom those things that serve to teach that salvation is through oneself rather than through a deity,” he wrote.

He ordered 44 textbooks removed from local schools. But that ruling, too, was eventually overturned.

“He was smart, he was a man of deep beliefs,” said Virgil Pittman, a retired federal judge who served alongside Hand for 35 years and represented an ideology juxtaposed to Hand’s conservatism. “We often had opposite views, but we always disagreed very agreeably.”

Hand resided in his native Mobile and spent most weekends at his family’s estate in Shubuta, Miss., northeast of Hattiesburg.

Hand earned his law degree at the University of Alabama.

He served in Europe as a combat infantry rifleman during World War II, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge as well as with the occupation army in Czechoslovakia.

When he returned stateside he went into law, working for the firm his father, Charles, had helped found, now called Hand Arendall. He married Allison Denby, and they had three daughters.

His wife of 60 years died in April.

Besides his daughters, survivors include seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial will be scheduled at noon Tuesday at Dauphin Way United Methodist Church.