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.

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 in

Murray v. Curlett

, which, combined with

Abington 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.

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"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.

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