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.
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.
Why did O'Hair have enemies among atheists?
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"I found more animosity among the atheist community toward her [than among Christians]. They felt like she had a golden opportunity and had blown it," Seaman said. "She couldn't delegate authority, she was mean to her followers, she was unappreciative of their sacrifices. They worked for a pittance because they believed in her cause, and she would curse them and write terrible things about them and fire them.