Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
O’Hair attended several colleges before receiving a bachelor’s degree from Ashland College, Ohio, in 1948 and an LL.B. from Southwest Texas College of Law in 1953. While she was raising her children as atheists, she was infuriated to learn that her son’s Baltimore school required him to recite the Lord’s...
(The entire section contains 530 words.)
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O’Hair attended several colleges before receiving a bachelor’s degree from Ashland College, Ohio, in 1948 and an LL.B. from Southwest Texas College of Law in 1953. While she was raising her children as atheists, she was infuriated to learn that her son’s Baltimore school required him to recite the Lord’s Prayer and attend Bible readings each morning. Claiming that her son was unconstitutionally discriminated against because of his religious beliefs, she sued in 1959 to have the district enjoined from requiring Bible reading and prayer.
O’Hair’s case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which joined it with the similar case, Schempp v. School District of Abington Township (Pa.), and decided in her favor in 1963. The Court ruled that having students read the Bible aloud and recite the Lord’s Prayer constituted religious exercises that were unconstitutional violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments’ ban on establishment of religion.
During the years that O’Hair’s case was before the courts her family became targets of assault and harassment. Her son was attacked physically, her house was vandalized, and her car was destroyed. When the Court’s decision became known, even more hate mail descended on her from across the country. Newspapers dubbed her “the most hated woman in America.”
When a seventeen-year-old girl with whom O’Hair’s (then named Murray) son was in love stayed at their house over her own parents’ objections, the Baltimore police followed. A scuffle broke out, and O’Hair and her son, William Murray, were arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct. Believing they would never get a fair trial in Baltimore, the Murrays and the young woman, now married to William Murray, fled to Hawaii. After the Hawaiian courts upheld Maryland’s extradition request, the Murrays moved to Mexico where Madalyn Murray met and married Richard O’Hair in 1965. Later the charges against her and her son were dismissed when she successfully challenged the grand jury indictments on the ground that Maryland law excluded atheists from serving on juries or being judges.
The O’Hairs moved to Austin, Texas, where O’Hair organized the Society of Separatists, later renamed American Atheists. It took another legal battle to force the Internal Revenue Service to grant a tax exempt status to her group, which published a magazine, American Atheist, and created the Atheist Library and Archive in Austin.
O’Hair frequently appeared on radio and television talk shows as a spokesperson for atheism, and she began a series of lawsuits to try to end grants of tax money to religious schools and tax exemptions for churches. Despite hostile personal attacks by the media, and the hate mail and property vandalism that she and her family suffered, O’Hair continued to propagandize for atheism, calling for increased separation of church and state, and protesting discrimination against unbelievers.
In 1995 O’Hair, her son and her adopted daughter, were reported missing. The three remained missing, amidst speculation that they had absconded with money from the American Atheist organization, until six years later in 2001 it was discovered that the three had been kidnapped and murdered in an extortion plot.