Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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Author Profile

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)