IFAS | Freedom Writer | September/October 1999 | ohair.html

In search of Mrs. O'Hair

By Skipp Porteous

The long search for the missing atheist Madalyn O'Hair, along with her son and granddaughter, which began in September 1995, may be nearing its unhappy conclusion. According to an article recently published in the San Antonio Express News, Federal agents suspect that Madalyn O'Hair and her son and granddaughter were murdered, dismembered and stuffed into large metal drums. The FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, local Texas police and the Texas Rangers have been involved in the search. The case is still under investigation.

In March 1989, I interviewed Mrs. O'Hair for The Freedom Writer. Mrs. O'Hair came into the national limelight when she sued the Baltimore public school system for its practice of beginning each day "with a reading, without comment, of a chapter of the Holy Bible and/or the use of the Lord's Prayer." Madalyn and her husband William Murray, both avowed atheists, stated that this practice was not only an affront to their freedom of religion, but also unconstitutionally established a state religion.

At the Supreme Court, the Murray suit was joined with one filed by Ed Schemmp, and his family, against a similar practice in Pennsylvania. In 1963, the High Court agreed with Mrs. O'Hair and 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. The interview gave us new insights into Mrs. O'Hair, sometimes called the "most hated woman in America."

Scheduling the interview was a chore. When I asked Mrs. O'Hair, a consummate publicity hound, the reason for her reluctance, she indicated that the media was biased against her and she felt that we wouldn't publish everything she said. As if to test us, she sprinkled her speech with four-letter words. We printed them all.

Many called Mrs. O'Hair "Madalyn Murray O'Hair," but when asked how she wanted to be addressed, Mrs. O'Hair responded: "Mrs. Madalyn O'Hair. I'm dropping the word Murray because I'm ashamed of my oldest son [Christian evangelist William Murray]. I've been dropping that for about 4 or 5 years." When asked, "what do you see as your greatest accomplishments?" Mrs. O'Hair answered: "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's probably the best thing that I did."

When asked, "How would you like to be remembered?" Mrs. O'Hair answered: "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."

© 1999 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.