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Madalyn Murray O'Hair : biography

13 April 1919 - 29 September 1995

Madalyn Murray O'Hair (April 13, 1919 – September 29, 1995) was an American atheist activist. She was the founder of the organization American Atheists and served as its president from 1963 to 1986. One of her sons, Jon Garth Murray, was the president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, while she remained de facto president during these nine years. She is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending official Bible-reading in American public schools in 1963. This came one year after the Supreme Court prohibited officially sponsored prayer in schools in Engel v. Vitale. O'Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America".

In 1995 she was kidnapped, murdered, and her body mutilated, along with her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, by former American Atheist office manager David Roland Waters.

Atheist activism

In 1960, Murray filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System, in which she asserted that it was unconstitutional for her son William to be required to participate in Bible readings at Baltimore public schools. In this litigation, she stated that her son's refusal to partake in the Bible readings had resulted in bullying being directed against him by classmates, and that administrators condoned it.

After consolidation with Abington School District v. Schempp, the lawsuit reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1963. The Court voted 8–1 in Schempp's favor, which effectively banned mandatory Bible verse recitation at public schools in the United States. Prayer in schools other than Bible-readings had already been ended in 1962 by the Court's ruling in Engel v. Vitale.

William went on to become a Baptist minister.

O'Hair filed a lawsuit with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in regard to the Apollo 8 Genesis reading. The case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction. The effects of the suit were varied: although NASA asked Buzz Aldrin to refrain from quoting the Bible in the Apollo 11 mission, he was allowed to conduct the first Communion service in space.. An urban legend claiming that NASA tried to keep the Communion service secret was disproven.

Murder

On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon, and granddaughter Robin suddenly disappeared. The door to the office of American Atheists was locked with a typewritten note attached (apparently with Jon's signature), stating, "The Murray O'Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis. We do not know how long we will be gone at the time of the writing of this memo." When O'Hair's home was entered, breakfast dishes were sitting on the table; her diabetes medication was on the kitchen counter, and her dogs had been left behind without a caregiver.

In phone calls a few days later, the trio claimed that they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. A few days later, Jon ordered $600,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler but took delivery of only $500,000 worth of coins.

Until September 27, American Atheists employees received several phone calls from Robin and Jon, but neither would explain why they left or when they would return; while they said nothing was amiss, their voices sounded strained and disturbed. After September 28, no further communication came from any of the O'Hairs.

Public speculation

Speculation abounded on the cause and meaning of O'Hair's disappearance. Some hypothesized that the O'Hairs had abandoned American Atheists and fled with the money. One investigator working for Vanity Fair, after looking at evidence presented to him by former employee David Roland Waters, concluded that they had escaped to New Zealand.

Exactly one year after the disappearance, William Murray filed a missing persons report. He had previously stated that he would not file such a report due to the inevitable media attention that it would bring. He also noted the lack of evidence of foul play, stating, "I don't want to search for people who don't want to be found." The O'Hairs were declared legally dead, and many of their assets were sold to clear their debts.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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