Who Was Madalyn Murray O'Hair?
Ten years after her mysterious disappearance and gruesome murder, the legacy of the famous atheist is still up for grabs.
BY: Rebecca Phillips
Most Americans today would have a difficult time naming the man responsible for bringing the recent case to take "Under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Supreme Court, even though Michael Newdow is arguably America's most well-known--and most detested--living atheist. But in the 1960s, no one would have had a hard time remembering the name Madalyn Murray.
Murray was known for her role in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision inMurray v. Curlett
, which, combined withAbington v. Schempp
, ended school prayer in public schools across the U.S. and turned her into the self-described "most hated woman in America."
"It is doubtful there is anyone in the United States who does not know the name Madalyn O'Hair," read the introduction to her 1966 pamphlet, "Why I Am an Atheist." [O'Hair took the last name of her second husband, Richard O'Hair, when she married him in 1965.] "She is probably the best-known Atheist in the world today." Other publications concurred: "Life" magazine described her in 1964 as "anathema to millions of Americans."
Now, ten years after her mysterious disappearance in late August, 1995, which culminated in the discovery years later of her grisly murder by a former employee, the legacy of this controversial activist still influences atheists in America today.
"Madalyn gave legitimacy to the atheist movement," said Ann Rowe Seaman, author of the recent biography, "America's Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair." "She put it on the map as a viable thing."
"She laid a foundation for atheists coming out of the closet," agreed Wendy Britton, a former acquaintance of the O'Hair family who organized an event for atheists in the Seattle area on August 28 called "Madalyn Murray O'Hair: What She Stood For And Why Her Ideas Matter Today."
Born in 1919 to a poor family in Pittsburgh, she was raised by church-going parents but claimed she became an atheist after reading the complete Bible in her early teen years. Madalyn Murray O'Hair became a household name when she contested the required moment of prayer and Bible reading in her son William's Baltimore-area public school in 1960. The Supreme Court, then under Chief Justice Earl Warren, delivered its 8-1 verdict in favor of O'Hair on June 17, 1963, expanding an earlier school prayer decision in the 1962 Engel v. Vitale case. Murray v. Curlett, along with Abington v. Schempp, eliminated not only obligatory school prayer but also mandatory Bible readings in public schools.
Though the Schempp case got top billing, O'Hair quickly became a hero among secular Americans. "The Schempps did not want to be in the limelight," O'Hair biographer and University of Missouri-Kansas City dean Bryan LeBeau told Beliefnet in a 2004 interview. "Madalyn walked right out to the front of the Supreme Court building, her son by her side, and grabbed the microphone from the press and insisted that this was a major case and she was responsible for it. She took credit and then went on to say that she wasn't done, that she was going to go on and challenge all kinds of other church-state matters."
Undeterred by the backlash (O'Hair received death threats and was the victim of vandalism long after the 1963 decision), O'Hair continued to insert herself into church and state legal battles as the country's atheist-in-chief. "I am an Atheist," she wrote in the "Why I Am an Atheist" pamphlet. "I am a bit more than that--an Atheist. I am, in fact, the Atheist. The Atheist who made Americans stop to take a little stock of their accepted values."
Later in 1963, O'Hair founded American Atheists, which remains one of the most activist atheist groups in the U.S. today. She used her platform as president of the organization to launch a number of other separation of church and state cases. None, however, were as successful or as notorious as Murray v. Curlett. In late 1963, she unsuccessfully sued the city of Baltimore to eliminate the city's tax exemptions for churches. She also challenged the school board of Baltimore to remove "Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance and filed suit over Maryland's "moment of silence" law, also without success.
Still, these suits managed to keep O'Hair in the public eye long after the 1963 decision. "Her suits might have failed," said Seaman, "but because she was so outrageous, they put her in the spotlight. She was always colorful and good copy for newspapers and TV. She knew how to get people stirred up. She knew how to say outrageous things that would get a furious reaction."
Her brazen style got her a great deal of press coverage, but also earned her enemies--surprisingly among atheists as well as Christians.