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People & Ideas: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Madalyn Murray O'Hair leaves court after urging a federal judge to block Pope John Paul II from celebrating a mass on Washington's Mall, arguing it would violate constitutional guarantees separating church and state. (October 1, 1979)Source: Bettmann/Corbis

Madalyn Murray O'Hair was an outspoken advocate of atheism and the founder of the organization American Atheists.

In 1960 O'Hair gained notoriety when she sued Baltimore public schools for requiring students to read from the Bible and to recite the Lord's Prayer at school exercises. Bible reading and prayer recitation were common in schools across the nation, and children were excused from the practice if they supplied a note from their parents. But O'Hair argued that the practice violated the First Amendment rights of her and her son as professed atheists "in that it threatens their religious liberty by placing a premium on belief as against non-belief and subjects their freedom of conscience to the rule of the majority; it pronounces belief in God as the source of all moral and spiritual values, equating these values with religious values, and thereby renders sinister, alien and suspect the beliefs and ideals of your Petitioners, promoting doubt and question of their morality, good citizenship and good faith."

The case reached the Supreme Court where it was joined to another similar case and tried as Abington School District v. Schempp. In 1963, the court ruled 8-1 in favor of the plaintiffs. The decision effectively ended Bible reading and prayer recitation in public schools.

The case also shifted the debate about the meaning of religious freedom. Until Schempp, religious freedom had been defined as the freedom to choose a religion; Schempp introduced a new option: the freedom to choose no religion.

The case catapulted O'Hair to national prominence. She became an outspoken, aggressive and even abrasive champion of atheism, quick to condemn those who did not subscribe to her views. Here she parted company with her historical predecessor, the 19th-century "Great Agnostic" Robert Ingersoll, who engaged in respectful dialogue with those who disagreed with him.

O'Hair had little patience with give-and-take. "I love a good fight," she said. "I guess fighting God and God's spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn't it?" Her adversaries dubbed her "Mad Madalyn," and she became the target of death threats. Her son William was also harassed and his pet kitten found strangled. In 1964, Life magazine reported that O'Hair was the most hated woman in America.

Vilified, she relished the role of provocateur as the public voice of atheism. She appeared as the first guest on The Phil Donahue Show and made frequent appearances on other talk shows. She tried to prevent the reading of Genesis 8 on the Apollo space mission, arguing that the astronauts were government employees and thus prohibited from reading the Bible. (The Supreme Court declined jurisdiction.) She continued to condemn religion and claimed in a Playboy interview that religion was a crutch and an "irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense."

Her abrasive style seemed to some to misrepresent the principles of atheism that she had laid out in her lawsuit and on which she founded the organization American Atheists: "An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist accepts that heaven is something for which we should work now -- here on earth -- for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist accepts that he can get no help through prayer, but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and to enjoy it. An Atheist accepts that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help lead to a life of fulfillment."

In 1995, O'Hair, her son and granddaughter were murdered by a former employee and associate. The case, shrouded in mystery and intrigue, created further media sensation around the already controversial national figure.

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Published October 11, 2010

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