Their suit, in conjunction with one filed by the Ed Schemmp family against a similar practice in Pennsylvania, brought about two landmark Supreme Court rulings. The Court banned compulsory prayer and Bible reading, thus putting all states out of the business of teaching religion.
Madalyn Murray (Mrs. O'Hair by remarriage) went on to found American Atheists, the largest atheist organization in the nation. She recently gave the following interview to the Freedom Writer.
FW: How would you like to be addressed?
O'HAIR: Mrs. Madalyn O'Hair. I'm dropping the word Murray because I'm ashamed of my oldest son. I've been dropping that for about 4 or 5 years. [Her other son, Jon Murray, is now president of American Atheists.]
FW: At some point I wanted to get into something about your son, William. Is that OK?
O'HAIR: I usually don't answer anything [about him], so it'll be short.
FW: Were you always an atheist?
O'HAIR: Oh no, not at all. I was born into and reared in the Presbyterian faith. My father was a Presbyterian and it used to be the obligation, the social obligation, of women to take their husband's religion, no matter what they [the women] were reared in. So my mother was a Lutheran, and the moment she married my father she started attending a Presbyterian church. She attended that church for 50 years. My brother and myself were both brought up in the Presbyterian church.
FW: At some point you obviously changed your mind.
O'HAIR: I sure did!
FW: What happened?
O'HAIR: I used to skip grades in school, and I'd been reading since I was three. Just generally speaking, my whole family's pretty bright, including my parents. One weekend my father refused to take me to the library. I used to go down and load up with library books, and when he wouldn't take me to the library I was forced to read the Bible from cover to cover. I was either in the 5th or the 6th grade. Now, you know damn well I didn't understand everything that I was reading, but I understood enough that I thought it was pretty horrible. I thought that it was violent, that God was pretty mean, and that the visitations he made caused troubles of all kinds on the chosen people. Then I started to read some of that to my father and mother. I would pick out stuff that I thought was pretty horrible. My mother would just look at me and say, "Oh, that's not in my Bible!"
FW: Would you have any advice for someone who is seeking "truth," what to believe in or not to believe in? What would your advice be to them?
O'HAIR: Let me correct one thing that you're saying. We never use the word "believe." Never. We never touch it. People will say, "I believe Main Street is three blocks down." You don't believe that. It's either there, or it isn't. We have absolutely no belief system. We don't ask anyone to believe in something. You look it up in the dictionary and it says "acceptance without proof." We do not go that route. We're trying to get people to not use the word "believe," ever. But the point is, I think it is most important for a person to educate themselves, either formally by going to school, or informally by reading. I think it is necessary for them to look at human history and the development of human history in just every place, particularly the European and American.
FW: What is the purpose of American Atheists?
O'HAIR: At American Atheists we have two ideals. One is, we want complete, absolute separation of state and church, in the Jeffersonian sense. And we mean that. There isn't any reason at all for the government to accept religious symbols, or religious ideas, or religious morality into the laws or government of our system right now. For example, it's none of the business of the President to put out a proclamation of Thanksgiving calling for prayer. We have the heads of the Roman Catholics, the Protestants, the Jewish — those three religious bodies' leaders could proclaim a religious day, or proclaim a day of prayer. The President of the United States doesn't need to do that. And I think we can open up all legislative bodies with a gavel. We don't need prayer. I feel all of these things are a continuing reaffirmation of religion into government. Our basic premise is that we want everyone to be rational, and religion is irrational. If you believe in religion, sooner or later you're going to believe in the Federal Reserve System. You're going to believe that the banks are really going to be able to bail out without costing us money. You're into other types of irrational beliefs. And the only way in which you're going to be able to keep away from that is to try to analyze every situation from a scientific perspective, just tearing it a part to see what the of it are, and then see basic elements how people can solve those problems, how we can solve it as a unified whole.
FW: Then, how do you differ from a humanist?
O'HAIR: Well, we don't feel that the humanists are God. We're just as concerned about the air, the sea, the earth, all the animals, the plants - my God, the trees that are being cut down! — as we are about human beings. We see them putting a special significance on humans. In addition to that, they make the umbrella too big. When they say that Pope John XXIII was a humanist, that turns curdles in my blood! Because as I read what Pope John XXIII was proposing at the Second Vatican Council, I cannot accept that at all. He was not a wonderful person. Going back through history, all of those persons who were humanists were not necessarily friends of the total earth and its animal and vegetable inhabitants.
FW: Do you support religious freedom?
O'HAIR: Oh, absolutely! I feel everyone has a right to be insane. And that they can do this any place at all. If they want religious schools, build them! My only problem with that is, do not ask for the land to be tax free. Do not ask for a government grant to build them. Do not ask for money for teacher's salaries, or more books, or anything else. Just go ahead and do your thing, and do it yourself. Just exactly the same as if you were a nudist. They don't get a tax break for being a nudist. Somebody doesn't get a tax break for being a Mason, or whatever they're interested in. And I feel that religions can have administrative bodies, social services, hospitals, anything at all, as long as they pay for it totally them selves, and make certain that the people who are involved with them are aware that they are basing their premises on religious ideology.
FW: Is your organization tax-exempt?
O'HAIR: Oh, we are now, yes. We just finished winning tax exemption for all of our organizations. So, every single one is tax-exempt. Now, let me tell you about that because you probably have the same thing. Are you tax-exempt?
FW: Yes, we are.
O'HAIR: Good, good. There are four kind of tax exemptions. Health, education, welfare, and religion. With health, education, and welfare you have to file a Form 990. With religion, they file nothing. Nobody can ask them anything. That's a tax-exemption we think they shouldn't have. They should be accountable to the citizens of the United States for exactly what they do with that tax-exempt money. Also, I think they're obligated to something. Such as, there are millions of homeless, and there are millions of churches that are used one day a week. There isn't a reason in the world that they can't let people come in and sleep on the pews. There isn't a reason in the world that they can't feed them. Most of the churches have kitchens. And, they should do this for the love of Jesus Christ, not asking for a government grant, or a handout. If they really want to say that they are going to do it to the "least of these," then let them do it.
FW: Suppose the churches lost their religious tax exemption, but they performed these other activities, do you think they should be eligible for tax exemption on the basis of health, education, or welfare?
O'HAIR: I feel that a religious hospital, if they are doing nothing but medical care, should be absolutely tax-exempt like any other hospital. But, you know, hospitals are not tax-exempt. Private hospitals have to pay taxes. I feel, though, that quite frequently you will have the phenomena of a person being denied a blood transfusion, you will have the phenomena of a woman being denied an abortion. These are based upon religious principles. I don't think this is correct.
I also feel that the government should go and arrest the leaders of the Christian Science religion and put them in jail until they say that prayer doesn't heal. One of the things that I'm very stunned over is that the American Medical Association, under no circumstances, will be critical of religion, or will say that religion is not the answer to medical or surgical problems of people. I think that primarily the people involved with the American Medical Association are just as afraid of religion as everybody else. Religion is treated differentially in the United States, because of the tremendous fear of everybody. What will the religious people do? They will harass me, they will call me at night on my phone, I will lose my job. They will invade my family. People are afraid, basically. They are afraid of religion, organized, or unorganized.
FW: You're not?
O'HAIR: Oh, hell, no!
FW: Are you trying to remove "In God We Trust" from our money?
O'HAIR: We're going to try that. We're contemplating mounting a suit in the next six weeks. Do you realize that we're the only nation in the world that puts religious graffiti on the money? And it was put there in 1954 in the height of the hysteria over McCarthyism.
FW: Yes, I know. We have a framed five-dollar bill in our office without "In God We Trust" on it.
O'HAIR: Well, there were three laws passed in a row: '54, '55, and '56. They were all initiated, most of them, by Lyndon Baines Johnson, when he was Speaker of the House. And Nixon and Eisenhower put them through. The first one was to change our national motto from "E Pluribus Unum" to "In God We Trust." The second one was to put it on the money. The third one was to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. So, these are not ideas that have been with the nation constantly. I was in the Second World War. I was with the Women's Army Corps. When we said the Pledge of Allegiance there was no "under God" in it.
FW: Do you realize that in the last 12 years the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has received 21 million letters which erroneously complain about your supposed efforts to ban religious broadcasting?
O'HAIR: Indeed, I know that.
FW: How do you feel about that?
O'HAIR: Well, I think the religious people need a Devil. And without the Devil, and without Hell, I don't think there would be any religious people. Of course, we have the USSR — the atheistic Devil. Inside the United States we have Madalyn Murray O'Hair — who's a Devil. And I think this is a need. It's a need to rally around the enemy. A place to focus your hate. And they have really focused it
Now, I have said this over and over again to the FCC, to the United States Senate, to the United States House. I've written to all of them. I also went to the Columbia University School of Journalism and tried to get them to see a realization of this. I've even written to Ann Landers, saying, "Put something in your column." If 21 million letters had been received against Billy Graham, the government would do something to make every person aware that it was a hoax. But, because that's received against Madalyn O'Hair, that's perfectly all right, because we need a Devil to keep religion going.
FW: For the record, are you a Communist?
O'HAIR: Oh, God, no! Oh, I shouldn't have said it like that! You know, there are a couple of things. If I was a Communist, I'd tattoo it on my forehead and say to everybody, 'All right, motherfuckers, up against the wall and read it loud and clear." I don't need to do that.
I have three arguments with Communists: Where are the women? How many women are on their Presidium? How many? Number two. I had a personal battle with Gus Hall, who's the head of the Communist Party in the United States. He said, "Madalyn, when you are fighting for atheism you are dividing the masses, when the masses need to be united to fight capitalism." He called me a bourgeois reactionary divisionist. So, that's what I am.
The other thing that I get angry about with the Communists is, that if you would read Karl Marx, he predicated everything he thought, everything that he did, on atheism. He said in every one of his preliminary writings, before he got into politics, "the world must be atheistic first, before anything else." Incidentally, just recently, I discovered that Freud was saying the same thing. Before you can go into psychoanalysis, before you can do anything about individual problems, everything has to be atheistic first. They are accommodating religion right now. Religion's moving into the USSR in an extraordinarily way.
FW: Just an additional thought related to the 21 million letters to the FCC. Did you ever stop and think about how much money evangelicals have raised using your name?
O'HAIR: Oh, well, this is the other thing. I'll tell you what I am convinced of. If you will look and see when the first evangelical radio station went on, particularly with the Moody Bible Institute, you will see that they were fighting the FCC for ownership, religious ownership of radio and television stations, where a church, or an evangelist, or whatever, actually owned the physical station and had the airwaves registered in their particular name. I think this whole FCC petition thing was to so batter the FCC that they had to give in to every religious request down the line. I think that there are as many religious radio stations as there are today, and as many television stations which are opening up for religious broadcasting, simply because of the FCC petitions. Incidentally, all of the cable access is absolutely flooded with religion right now.
FW: You have one son, William Murray, who's a born-again Christian evangelist of some sort.
O'HAIR: Well, that's not true. He's a pretty good atheist this is one of the reasons I hate to talk about him — I can't imagine a good atheist doing that for money.
FW: You think that's why he's doing that?
O'HAIR: I know that's why.
FW: Do you see the abortion controversy as a religious issue?
O'HAIR: Absolutely. Incidentally, everybody takes it for granted that American Atheists are pro-abortion. We are not. Let me qualify that. Abortion is not an appropriate means of birth control. We must teach birth control. We must teach sex education. If we do, abortions will be reduced by at least 300%. They would just drop automatically. The same persons who are attempting to see that women cannot have an abortion are those persons who are fighting sex education, and birth control, and information dissemination. I have, on television, said to priests over and over, the single greatest fetus killer in the United States, when you're talking about killing fetuses, is the Roman Catholic Church, because you force the women to become pregnant out of their ignorance, and then out of their fear, they get an abortion. So the murders — everyone you are saying is a murderer - rest with you. When I really get angry with the priests I say, "Come on, how many children have you killed with your wet dreams at night? How much sperm have you blown off?"
At the other end of the spectrum: if a woman needs an abortion, and she and her doctor have made that determination, I don't think anyone has a right to step in. But I do feel that too many women use it as a birth control method.
FW: On the issue of censorship of pornography and rock music, do you see that as a religious issue, too?
O'HAIR: Yes, I do. Incidentally, I don't like rock music. I have never liked it. I have never understood it, and I can't hear the lyrics. I think that most people can't hear them either. I'm still stuck back with Chopin and Beethoven and Bach, and all those old ones. The whole point is, I feel that anybody who wants to say anything, do anything, should be able to say anything or do anything, within the limits of not hurting another person. And I don't see how rock music hurts anybody, or I don't see how pornography hurts anybody.
Incidentally, one of the things that I learned very quickly when I first met Larry Flynt — he wanted to interview me for his magazine, and I went and met him several times and developed a friendship with him — one has to pay for pornography, it isn't free. It is not distributed free any place in the United States. There has to be a deliberate act of somebody going in and purchasing it. So, I think that's a hell of a lot different than distributing leaflets or pamphlets on the street. It's merchandise. If someone wants to get involved in that, it's their business.
FW: So their buck, or five bucks, is a vote.
O'HAIR: That's right. The relationships that people have — that are sexual, psychological, emotional — these relationships are not open to supervision by parents, schools, churches, or government. Nobody has any right to intervene at all, in any kind of relationship like that. And once again, unless there is danger to the physical safety of somebody. I have given money all the time to centers for battered women, and I let them use my name.
FW: What battles do you see ahead?
O'HAIR: I'm very, very worried about Bush. I think that this man is probably much more reactionary than Reagan was. And that he's a patrician of Eastern, wealthy families. And, because of his emphasis on religion, we might be in much more difficulty than we were before. I don't know if you know it or not, but he was interviewed in Chicago by our national media spokesman.
FW: Yes, Rob Sherman.
O'HAIR: Yes, and he [Bush] said that he didn't see how atheists could either be citizens or patriots. And that is frightening. I think that we will continue to have, most probably because of legal decisions, a corrosion of freedom from religion down the line. Reagan has appointed 60% of Federal Appellate judges. And the Supreme Court is gone. I think that the impact from the legal decisions that are going to come can only hurt more and more of our personal freedoms.
FW: What do you see as your greatest accomplishments?
O'HAIR: Oh, one of the things I'm most proud of is that people can say, "I am an atheist," in the United States today, without being called a Communist atheist, or an atheist Communist. I separated the two words. I think that that's probably the best thing that I did. The other thing is, of course, is that we are developing something we call "Modern Atheism," or "American Atheism," which is entirely different from the materialism of the Greek philosophers. What we're interested in is moving out, in order to see that there is a more viable lifestyle for all people, and that the human condition can be ameliorated somewhat by human beings working in concert to do something. We must do something about the pollution. We must do something about the waste. We have to do something about the greed. We must stop war. And we're not going to do any of those things as long as we feel the solution is to go to church on Sunday, or funnel our energy into prayer or religious solutions. Everybody has to get mixed up in the problems, to try to solve them.
FW: How would you like to be remembered?
O'HAIR: I told my kids that I just want three words on my tombstone, if I have one. I'll probably be cremated. One is "Woman." I'm very comfortable in that role. I've loved being a woman, I've loved being a mother, I've loved being a grandmother. I want three words: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. That's me.
The address for American Atheists is P.O. Box 2117, Austin, TX 78768.