The Murray O’Hair Family Generations in service to Atheism and the
Separation of Church and State...
by Conrad F. Goeringer
For over three decades, Madalyn Murray O’Hair and members of her family labored on behalf of the cause of Atheism and the separation of government and religion. As Madalyn Murray, she was a plaintiff in the historic MURRAY v. CURLETT case which helped to end coercive prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools of America. She founded a series of organizations including American Atheists, wrote books, articles, and pamphlets, lectured at major colleges and forums throughout the country, and appeared in the media as an impassioned advocate for Atheism and the First Amendment. For years with her son, Jon Murray and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, she remained an important part of the American cultural scene.
To both those who supported and detested her, she was truly an American original.
Neither an exhaustive biography nor a comprehensive retrospective on her place in American social and legal history have been written. Despite the accounts of both detractors and sympathetic allies, these sorts of biographical undertakings often require years of research, and a certain distance. Personalities as complex as Madalyn Murray O’Hair are not always easily understood, nor can they be reduced to a staccato of sound-bytes and clichés. In her time, she was a “mover and shaker” who often defied enormous odds, struggled against the cultural grain and political consensus, and staked out an intellectual position -- Atheism -- in a time when the word was badly misunderstood.
Throughout all of this, O’Hair faced the burden of surviving, raising a family and carefully nurturing a nascent movement for social change.
Even today, more than three decades after the famous U.S. Supreme Court case that transformed her into “the most hated woman in America,” Madalyn Murray O’Hair remains badly misunderstood by many people, including her ideological allies. Some have distorted her role in the battle to remove coercive religious practices from the nation’s public schools, maintaining that “this would have taken place even if Madalyn Murray hadn’t been around.” Others inaccurately claim that MURRAY v. CURLETT was a legal curiosity, a suit of minimal consequences. They instead point to other First Amendment litigation as significant milestones in the history of the state-church conflict in America. This belies both the facts and the significance of the MURRAY v. CURLETT case.
A few words need to be said about the purpose of this section on the American Atheists web site.
While nearly 10% of Americans -- some 26,000,000 people -- describes themselves as Atheists, agnostics, freethinkers or some similar appellation, we are very much a divided, even marginalized collection. “Organized atheism” remains a painfully small movement, one still deeply divided over those perennial questions such as how we should structure ourselves, even what we should call ourselves. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, though, as Madalyn Murray was first articulating her sense of Atheism and the separation of church and state -- and laying the groundwork for the Baltimore prayer suit -- she found an “atheist” movement poorly organized, divided, in shambles and often led by “old white men” more rooted in the past than in the challenges of the present or a vision for the future.
Murray, then, had to fight to be heard as both an Atheist and a woman. Even today, that is no small achievement. Four decades ago, the idea of an Atheist -- and an Atheist woman, to boot! -- daring to speak out and challenge the cultural assumptions of the mid-twentieth century was simply unheard of.
Writing about this in a commemoration of the MURRAY case, Frank Zindler, editor of American Atheist Magazine noted in the Summer, 1998 issue of that journal:
“While American Atheists is proud that it was its founder who brought the suit that did so much to liberate the public schools from religious domination, we acknowledge the fact that the process of liberation still has a long way to go before the public school is a completely secular institution in compliance with the principle of state-church separation implicit in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States... We acknowledge also that Madalyn Murray O’Hair did not achieve this feat single-handedly.
There were already several Supreme Curt rulings that provided a strong foundation for her case. Then too, there was the parallel case of ABINGTON SCHOOL DISTRICT v. SCHEMPP, which worked toward the same end -- and without any acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Atheism as the properly American lifestyle...
Animus against Atheists -- and Madalyn Murray in particular -- ran so high 35 years ago that even the Supreme Court itself seems to have indulged in a spiteful act in the very process of publishing its decision. Despite the fact that the MURRAY case had been given an earlier docket number than the SCHEMPP case (119 vs. 142) and presented oral arguments earlier (Feb. 27 vs. Feb. 27-28), the Murray name was expunged from the legal records by the simple artifice of combining the MURRAY case with the SCHEMPP case and referring thereafter to the combined cases as ABINGTON SCHOOL DISTRICT v. SCHEMPP rather than MURRAY v. CURLETT -- as priority would normally require...”
But there was also something else about MURRAY v. CURLETT -- and it typified Madalyn Murray’s personal style of confrontational, philosophical activism. Along with the usual, often trite legal niceties, Murray used that case to present an “introduction” or “preamble” to the highest court in the land which openly, proudly and unabashedly proclaimed, “Your petitioners are Atheists...” She went on to define her concept of the Atheist life-style, beginning with the proclamation: “An Atheist loves himself and his fellowman instead of a god. An Atheist knows that heaven is something for which we should work now -- here on earth -- for all men together to enjoy...”
It was blunt, straight-forward, to the point. It was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. It would characterize a personal and political style that would continue for nearly three decades.
Picketing the White House, 1982
Whatever your opinion of Madalyn Murray O’Hair the person -- was she too aggressive and confrontational, or did she employ a style which the time demanded? -- Atheists and friends at the end of this century owe much to her legacy. She “desensitized” the American cultural landscape, at least to the extent that Atheists today are not quite so driven into that dark closet of marginalization and timidity as they were in the 1950s or 1960s. She also raised important philosophical issues in an activist context during a tumultuous period in American history. Her challenges to god belief and government sponsorship of religion came at a time when Americans were re-examining -- often painfully -- other sacred artifacts of their culture. The nation was still in the convulsive waves of the civil rights movement. (One of Jon Murray’s earliest memories was accompanying his mother on a picket line demanding that blacks be permitted into a local restaurant.) Women were struggling to take their own movement beyond the earlier victory of the suffragettes. Students and workers were speaking out against a war in a distant land. Other “liberation” movements, such as the Gay rights cause, were struggling to find their bearings and forge a sense of coherence. O’Hair was part of this colorful, confrontational and chaotic period; to understand her, in part anyway, is to appreciate the meaning of this unique period in American history. Indeed, any sober assessment of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her family must take all of this into account; she especially cannot be fully understood, for good or bad, without appreciating her as both a product and shaper of the times she lived in.
Jon Murray, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Robin Murray O'Hair
And that’s a disturbing use of the past tense, isn’t it? Since September of 1995, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son Jon and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, have been missing. Many presume them to be dead, perhaps the victims of foul play. This brings us to the purposes of this portion of the web site.
We hope to give you, the visitor and reader, at least some perspective on what these three people accomplished during their lifetime of service to Atheism and American Atheists. Whether you agree with their personal “styles” or what they did, we suggest that the Murray O’Hairs do deserve considerable recognition for their achievements. This includes, beyond the historic MURRAY v. CURLETT case: the first national convention of Atheists in the United States; the first American Atheist Library and Archive to preserve the seminal documents of this movement; the first radio and cable television programs enunciating the Atheist position, and much, much more.
We also intend to use this portion of the web site to report on the disappearance of the Murray O’Hair family. This will include copy from the American Atheist Newsletter. It is our perspective of the events which have unfolded from that day when we lost all touch with the Murray O’Hair family.
From the beginning of the disappearance story -- roughly, the fall of 1995 -- media accounts often embellished or distorted the known facts of the case. In November of 1996, it was revealed -- by American Atheists, in fact -- that about $600,000 was missing from an organizational fund; subsequently, it was learned that Jon Murray apparently converted most of this into gold coin. From there, the story of the missing Murray O’Hairs became fodder for speculation, some of it irresponsible, much of it simply mean-spirited. It took on a life of its own; it was no longer a story of issues and ideas, but personalities, grudges, speculation and interpretation.
All of this took a decidedly different twist nearly two years later, though, when information pointing to possible foul play emerged. Despite the fact that the Murray O’Hairs were suddenly transformed from thieves to possible victims of a murder plot, many of those who earlier had “rushed to judgment” and pronounced the family guilty of crimes seemingly ignored their earlier impulsive claims. Some transferred their negative opinions about Madalyn O’Hair and her family onto the officers and directors of American Atheists who took on the responsibility of operating the organization following the disappearance. True to form, like any group marginalized and “on the outs” of a larger culture, there was the irrational impulse to turn inward, to resurrect old grudges and disagreements, to focus on personalities. The errors and missteps of thirty years, for some anyway, became more important that the larger picture.
And there were the sensationalist media claims...
One writer in a major magazine reported that the O’Hairs had been seen in a foreign country while eating at a Mexican food restaurant, presumably living off of ill-gotten funds. Other accounts simply could not resist the temptation to indulge in ad hominem attacks and descriptions, further indicating that much of American media has succumbed to the style and substance of “tabloid” journalism. The truth has often been in short supply, or heavily diluted with repetitive speculation and personal attack.
It was an early decision by the new President of American Atheists, Ms. Ellen Johnson, that any reporting or comment by the organization would be made in the American Atheists Newsletter. This has been done partly out of respect for the membership, and a commitment to accuracy. The newsletter has limited its content to the known facts of the case, and tried to minimize speculation. This has divided the editorial staff at times; many have pet theories of what may have happened to the Murray O’Hairs, or opinions on whether or not they are even alive.
What did happen? Who was involved? Were other individuals, or perhaps even a group, responsible? Gary Peter Karr, an ex-con, was charged in a conspiracy to kidnap and extort money from the Murray O'Hairs, and was convicted on June 2, 2000 on four of the five counts.
Finally, we include a section of Appreciations of the Murray O’Hair family (this section not available yet). It was open season in some quarters of the media on three people who, whatever their personal faults, were dedicated standard-bearers on behalf of Atheism and the separation of church and state. Many of us valued their friendship and company; many admired their tough, courageous actions which often cost them dearly. Robin Murray O’Hair, for instance, went to jail for refusing to swear a “god oath” in the State of Texas. This was nearly thirty years after the assaults, harassment and violence against the Murray family in Baltimore, Maryland. Had America learned nothing about the importance of civil rights for those who disagreed with the majority in respect to religious belief?
Popular media rarely speaks on behalf of the critic, the dissenter, the rebel, the heretic; such people are belligerently pushed aside in a stampede toward social and intellectual conformity or, as in the case of the Murray O’Hairs, misrepresented and smeared. That is the price one often pays for being an innovator and trail-blazer. It is the toll demanded for the privilege of questioning the dominant authorities, assumptions and doctrines of any age. The penalty can be even higher...and whether or not Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Jon Murray and Robin Murray O’Hair paid that price, only time will reveal.
Truth demands that someone speak on behalf of these three people. Fairness requires it. But why an “Appreciation”?
One reason is that along with the tumultuous history beginning with the MURRAY case, through the numerous other legal battles, conventions, speeches, writing, demonstrations and countless projects, these were people. They had hopes, aspirations, personal lives; they were multi-dimensional, not the caricatures we often make of “public people,” and read about in snippets of news print or hastily-contrived biographies.
Some religious and political leaders demonized Madalyn Murray O’Hair; and there are even those Atheists, freethinkers and others who parted company (and a working relationship) with her and the family over the years, who speak poorly of these three people. The latter especially is understandable, even expected. Any cause group, any social movement has its share of conflicts, internal disruptions, disagreements and splits, and not all those who share the same vision will travel on the same road. No sensible person would argue that Madalyn O’Hair (or anyone else) was infallible, always the perfect judge and arbiter of the situation. Those who once worked with the O’Hairs and later terminated that relationship have, in many cases, acknowledged that they too now confront many of the same problems and obstacles Madalyn Murray O’Hair did. Perhaps they can benefit from learning of past mistakes, and past achievements as well...
The Appreciations serve the role of giving voice to balance, and a different humane perspective of three extraordinary individuals. We gain little toward understanding ourselves or others if we demonize and stereotype; the world is too complex for that, and so are the people who inhabit it. There is another view of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her family different from that presented in some, though not all quarters of the popular press. We present those voices here; they deserve to be heard and considered by anyone trying to make any summation (let alone a judgment) regarding the Murray O’Hair family.
This is to be a “living” archive. The materials on this web site already include some of the writings of the Murray O’Hairs, and this will be expanded considerably over time. The Appreciations will grow as well, as more people are asked to contribute their thoughts and remembrances about the Murray O’Hair family.
We cannot at this time predict any resolution or closure regarding the disappearance of the Murray O’Hairs. With time, there has been an erosion in the expectation that they will return; this has fueled the sense, held by some, that they may be dead, victims in some yet to be understood chain of events. So, that section of this archive may be forever open, a case unresolved and incomplete. Their writings, contributions and achievements do live on, though, preserved, worthy of our study and attention. There is much here that we can learn from in the study and appreciation of these three lives.