O’Hair, Madalyn Murray

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O’Hair, Madalyn Murray

(b. 13 April 1919 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; disappeared and presumed dead 1995?), atheist who successfully sued to prohibit prayer in public schools, and who gained notoriety for her spirited attacks against religion before mysteriously disappearing.

John Irvin Mays, a building contractor, and Lena Scholle Mays, baptized their daughter Madalyn in the Presbyterian Church and gave her what she later described as a happy and secure childhood. As a girl, she regularly attended church services and Sunday school. In 1929 her father lost his business as the Great Depression began. He sought work as a handyman and carpenter, traveling with his family from state to state.

O’Hair recalled that her first pangs of spiritual disbelief struck as an adolescent. She said she read the Bible from beginning to end when she was thirteen years of age and was shocked by the brutality in the Old Testament. She found the New Testament too fantastical.

As a young woman, she attended several colleges before eloping with John Roths in 1941. World War II soon separated them, with Roths serving in the Pacific and she, a cryptographer, in North Africa and Europe, where she had an affair and became pregnant by Army officer William J. Murray. She and Roths divorced after the war. Though Murray refused to marry her, she took his name and gave it to her son, William Murray III. O’Hair then moved to Houston, where she attended the South Texas College of Law.

In Baltimore in 1954, she gave birth to Jon Garth Murray, by a different father. As with her older son, O’Hair had him baptized. Although she dabbled in left-wing politics, it was not until young William Murray complained about the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in his school that O’Hair found a cause to which she could devote her considerable energy and rhetorical talent.

In Murray v. Curlett, she sued the Baltimore schools, arguing that the prayers were unconstitutional. She lost in the state courts, but in 1963 the United States Supreme Court ruled 8–1 in her favor. Justice Tom C. Clark wrote for the majority that the recitation of prayers or Bible passages in public schools constitutes “religious exercises, required by the state in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.”

The landmark decision brought O’Hair notoriety that made her life both difficult and exciting. Although her case became combined with a similar Pennsylvania challenge called Abington School District v. Schempp, with one decision being rendered for both cases under the Abington name, it was the brash, publicity-seeking O’Hair who became known as the woman who removed prayer from public schools. She not only talked openly of her atheism as the case proceeded through the courts, but brashly condemned people of faith, acts for which she received death threats and hate mail. Her sons were beaten on several occasions, and she lost her job as a social worker.

But her defense of atheism in a country where only a tiny minority questioned the existence of God also gave her the attention she craved. O’Hair raised tempers in 1967 as the first guest on the Phil Donahue show, and made appearances on Merv Griffin and the Tonight Show. In televised debates she took on popular preachers and enjoyed calling herself “the most hated woman in America.”

O’Hair made atheism her life’s work, founding a monthly atheist magazine and several atheist organizations. She continued to file lawsuits to further extricate religion from public institutions, challenging the tax-exempt status of church lands as well as a juror’s oath that required swearing belief in God and the use of the words “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins. These suits failed, but with others she succeeded in forcing several cities to remove the cross from their seals.

In 1964 O’Hair left Baltimore, where she faced assault charges after a confrontation with police. She and her teen-aged children moved to Hawaii. There her oldest son fathered a daughter, Robin, whom she later adopted. From there they moved to Mexico, from whence she was deported to Texas. With her new husband, Richard O’Hair (whom she married on 18 October 1965), she made Austin the center of what she hoped would be a national movement.

American Atheists, the largest of her several organizations, grew to thirty chapters nationwide with a total membership of several thousand. She elaborated on her philosophy on her cable television program and weekly radio show, which was heard on 150 stations. In the 1970s and early part of the 1980s O’Hair prospered, successfully soliciting donations from wealthy anti-religionists. She, her son Jon, and her granddaughter Robin took turns serving as the presidents of a family of atheist groups. They lived together in a spacious home and drove around Austin in luxury cars.

But the threesome made enemies of their fellow atheists. O’Hair grew abusive in increasingly frequent tirades against employees. Some suspected that she pocketed much of the wealth she had convinced elderly patrons to will to American Atheists. Many who had worked for her questioned her conviction, called her a detriment to their cause, and formed their own atheist organizations. Meanwhile, O’Hair’s older son left the family and became an evangelical Christian.

In 1993, fighting lawsuits and the Internal Revenue Service, the O’Hairs began making plans to flee to New Zealand, where a sympathizer offered to help them resettle. In September 1995 the three disappeared with $500,000 in gold coins after leaving a note on the door of American Atheists’ headquarters stating that they were out of town on business.

Although the three O’Hairs had apparently been in the process of fleeing, authorities later determined that they were probably murdered. Despite extensive searches, their bodies were never found. Federal investigators have suggested that the O’Hairs were murdered in a plot masterminded by David Waters, a former American Atheists employee who had learned of their plan to liquidate their assets and leave the country. Without their bodies, authorities could not charge Waters, who denied killing them. In August 2000 Waters’s friend Gary Karr was convicted on extortion, money laundering, and other charges related to the O’Hairs’ disappearance. A third man associated with the crime, Danny Fry, was found dead shortly after the family was presumably murdered.

O’Hair’s mysterious disappearance underscored her ambiguous life. The atheist thrust herself into the national spotlight to defend a constitutional principle and, drawing much of the nation’s ire, helped force America to accept a wider separation of church and state. But O’Hair also succeeded, through her eccentric behavior and questionable financial dealings, in making the unpopular cause of atheism in America even more unpopular.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair authored several books and tracts, many of them published by her own American Atheist Press, including: Why I Am an Atheist (1965), The American Atheist (1967), and Let Us Prey: An Atheist Looks at Church Wealth (1970). For a popular profile of Murray at the height of her fame, see Jane Howard, “The Most Hated Woman in America,” Life (19 June 1964). For an account of O’Hair’s demise, see John MacCormack, “Missing and Presumed Dead,” Texas Monthly (28 Dec. 1999).

Lauren Markoe