Six myths you need to know about Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the Supreme Court case she fought

Six myths you need to know about Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the Supreme Court case she fought

Conrad Goeringer

Murray v Curlett…

It is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood cases in American jurisprudence. It is also one of the most important, in that it helped to remove coercive prayer and Bible verse recitation from our nation’s public schools.

In doing so, Murray v Curlett (1963) stands as one of the pivotal cases in the early 1960s which reinforced Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between government and religion. There had been other legal cases, of course, challenging everything from the use of government money to aid religious schools, to the requirement that one swear a religious oath in order to hold an office of public trust. Murray, however, was among the cases which had a profound impact on a key American institution — the nation’s public school classrooms. Equally important is the fact that this case was filed by an openly avowed Atheist — Madalyn Murray (later Madalyn Murray O’Hair) — who insisted that her legal challenge include references to her Atheist philosophy. Indeed, the opening brief in the case proudly announced “Your petitioners are Atheists…”

Being marginalized in American culture, it was a major tour de force for an Atheist to be so bold, so outspoken, so utterly and courageously honest. The suit was challenged on behalf of William Murray, a Baltimore, Maryland high school student by his mother, Madalyn Murray. Adding to the controversy the case generated was its identification with an outspoken woman who “broke the mold” regarding what was then (and to a great extent remains) as “proper” feminine behavior. Like the Atheist men and women who preceded her, Madalyn Murray challenged social convention, questioned the accepted morays of her time, and labored to improved the human condition. That she was both an outspoken Atheist and a women made it all the more difficult.

On June 17, 2003 we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the U.S.. Supreme Court ruling in Murray v Curlett. Myths and active misrepresentations about the case continue to spread. There are claims that Mrs. Murray “kicked God out of the public schools,” or that she had nothing whatsoever to do with ending prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools. Both statements are wide of the mark, with the former often being made by Christian fundamentalist and other school prayer advocates, while the latter enjoys peculiar credence in some Atheist and freethought circles. Forty years after this historic case, the record again needs to be set straight. Murray v Curlett was a victory for both religious and nonreligious advocates of state-church separation. It is, and deserves to be, a special case for Atheists. Today, Atheists, Freethinkers, even Secular Humanists and other nonbelievers are marching for civil rights and their recognition to a “seat at the table” in the public debate over First Amendment policy i ssues. That is a quantum leap forward from the endless and repetitive droll of philosophical arguments (“Can we prove God doesn’t exist?”). In the latter-half of the twentieth century, there was a flowering of movements for civil rights and human dignity for blacks, women, gays and so many other groups. It took a while for Atheists and other nonbelievers to catch up, but that process is now underway.

And, it began with Murray v Curlett.

The Murray case “kicked God out of our public schools” and violated the rights of religious speakers.

This claim is popular with the religious right and other movements supporting organized school prayer. What was ended by Murray and other decisions, at least in theory, was the unfair practice of forcing students to participate in a sectarian religious ritual as part of the regular school day. The Supreme Court ruled that excusing students from the room who did not wish to participate was not an acceptable solution. The prayers that were recited usually reflected a particular Christian religious bias.

Students then, and now, have every right to pray on their own time, even at school. They may pray while riding the bus, before or after meals, while walking in corridors. They may also join with friends in voluntary prayer in settings where other students are not compelled to listen or participate. Murray v Curlett helped end the practice of having teachers or other school officials coordinate and even lead students in classroom prayer, thus creating a government endorsement of a particular religion, and religion in general.

Madalyn Murray had nothing to do with ending school prayer. That practice was ended thanks to the ruling in Engel v Vitale.

Previous legal cases had challenged the practice including Doremus v Board of Education (1952) filed by members of the United Secularists of America, a leading Atheist group of its day. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case, however, and it was not until 1962 the justices ruled against a specific form of organized prayer in the Engel v Vitale decision. The Engel case addressed a specific abuse of the First Amendment dealing only with state-composed prayer. Murray v Curlett challenged general prayer and Bible verse recitation in the nation’s public school classrooms. Unlike Murray, however, this case challenged the constitutionality of permitting the government to compose a prayer to be recited in the schools, not the constitutionality of compulsory prayer itself. That prayer( known as the Regent’s Prayer) had been assembled on the instructions of the Regents of the Board of Education of the State of New York in hopes of inventing a suitable “nondenominational” statement which did not mention Jesus Chri st or any other specific religious figure, and thus pass constitutional muster. It read:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.

The prayer was presumably sufficiently vague and “nondenominational” so as to offend no particular group (save Atheists), and create the impression that government was not endorsing any particular religion.

The Petitioners in Murray cited this important case and stated that their’s was “within the compass of Engel v Vitale”. The Murray v Curlett case, however, dealt with broader forms of religious exercise, including the reading of verses from the Holy Bible and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Madalyn Murray had nothing to do with ending school prayer. That practice was declared unconstitutional in the ruling from Abington v Schempp.

At the time Madalyn Murray was fighting her case — first in the Superior of Baltimore City, then the Court of Appeals in Maryland, and finally the U.S. Supreme Court — a somewhat similar case arose in Pennsylvania. There, the Schempp family who lived near Philadelphia challenged a state statute which provided for the daily reading without comment of ten verses from the Holy Bible.

Ellory, one of the Schempp children had refused to stand during the day’s opening school exercises which included Bible verse recitation, prayer, a salute to the flag and announcements of school activities.

During a hearing, members of the family provided evidence that they were religious (“of the Unitarian faith”) and active members of the Unitarian Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania.

The two cases, Murray v Curlett and Abington Township v Schempp were combined for purposes of deliberation by the U.S. Supreme Court since they involved similar issues. Frank Zindler, Editor of American Atheist Magazine noted in the Summer, 1998 edition of that publication:

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 argument earlier (Feb. 27 vs. Feb. 27-28, 1963), 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 as Murray v Curlett — as priority would normally require. But Unitarians, such as the Schempps, were (and still are) more respectable than Atheists…

Since the Supreme Court abolished prayer in our public schools, social ills have proliferated. Our country must return to God, and we must bring back prayer to impart a sense of morality to our children…

In its 1963 ruling, the Supreme Court did not “abolish prayer” in public schools. It ended a coercive religious practice which even many people of faith found offensive and intrusive.

Was school prayer widespread throughout the nation? In his written opinion in the combined Murray v Curlett/Abington Township v Schempp case, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan discussed the history of “morning devotional exercises” in public schools, and noted that it was not until about 1910 that twelve states made the practice mandatory. He named Massachusetts, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Tennessee, and Illinois. School prayer had been implemented in Maryland in 1905 and Pennsylvania in 1913.

In the individual states, supreme courts had already ruled prior to 1962 that various forms of orchestrated prayer or Bible verse sponsorship. Nearly two dozen states permitted local school districts to allow the practices.

As for the proliferation of social ills, pundits have attempted to link the early 1960s Supreme Court ruling with everything from rates of juvenile delinquency to foundering SAT scores. Even violent events such as shootings in schools are blamed on the ruling in Murray/Abington, or the fact that display of the Ten Commandments in public schools is prohibited.

This argument is simplistic in that it ignores the many improvements which have taken place in the last four decades. Would it make sense to attribute these to the Supreme Court decision? Polio, which affected millions of Americans in the mid20th century has been cured. We have longer life expectancy, greater income, and technology gives us the promise of a more comfortable and enriched life. Our nation has also made considerable progress in addressing other ills including racial and sexual discrimination.

The Engel, Murray, Abington and other cases have provided Americans with additional freedoms. The constitutional separation of church and state is stronger because of these hard-fought lawsuits. School children may no longer be proselytized or have their rights denied because of the coercive religious practices Ms. Murray and others fought to abolish.

Madalyn Murray “stole” publicity over the 1963 case, denying Ed Schemmp his proper place in history, and then dubbed herself “the most hated woman in America.”

There was considerable publicity of the principles in both the Murray v Curlett and Abington Township cases.

The Murrays made it clear from the beginning that they were filing their lawsuit as Atheists. The Plea stated that the requirement forcing school children to recite verses from the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer:

Threatens our religious liberty by placing a premium on belief as against non-belief and subjects our freedom of conscience to the rule of the majority; it pronounces belief in god as the source of all moral and spiritual values, equating these values with religious values, and thereby renders sinister, alien and suspect our beliefs and ideals…

Murray continued, unabashedly:

Your petitioners are Atheists and they define their lifestyle as follows. An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man 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. An Atheist thinks that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue, and enjoy it. An Atheist thinks that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment…

The media focus was different, however, regarding the coverage of the Schempp case. Ms. O’Hair noted:

The Schempp family (husband, wife and three children) permitted themselves to be photographed in their home, reading from the Bible, and portraying themselves as devoutly religious …

Those behind the Schempp case made clear that they were religious people. The American Civil Liberties Union provided attorneys, and groups like the American Jewish Congress filed amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs. They also testified that religious doctrines conveyed through a literal interpretation of the Bible were “contrary to the religious beliefs which they held and to their familiar teachings.”

The Murray case, however, involved litigants who were openly Atheists. Ms. Murray later wrote:

I confronted the media with the information that (1) I did not accept the Bible at all, either in school or at home and that (2) prayer was not efficacious since there was no god to whom anyone could pray.

The original Pennsylvania statute authorizing the reading of select Bible verses at the beginning of the classroom day was amended and signed into law by the governor on December 19, 1959. It provided:

“Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.”

Ms. Murray O’Hair later wrote that after “careful consideration,” Ed Schempp concluded “that he could not have his children excused from the morning ceremonies for fear that they would be labeled as oddballs or Atheists. He thought that their classmates might ‘lump all particular religious difference(s) or religious objections (together) as ‘Atheism.’ He opined that at the time of the hearing the word atheism was often connected with atheistic communism’ and had ‘very bad connotations such as ‘un-American’ or ‘Red,’ with ‘overtones of possible immorality.”‘ Being an Atheist, especially one fighting a controversial case involving school prayer and Bible verse recitation, was especially difficult, even dangerous. The Murray family was constantly harassed and even subjected to violence.

Those who insist that Ms. Murray “stole” the publicity limelight from Ed Schempp might contemplate the consequences the case had on the Murray family. Would they wish the same threats and intimidation upon the Schempps, or plaintiffs in other cases?

As for the pejorative description “the most hated woman in America,” Ms. Murray did not invent that moniker for herself. Rather, it was Life Magazine, a prominent weekly publication of that era, which bestowed that unflattering title on her. Madalyn Murray occasionally referred to that description as an example of the anti-Atheist bigotry that characterized so much of the nation’s popular consciousness at the time.

One could use this type of verbal legerdemain about anything, i.e., “if Neil Armstrong hadn’t been the first human to step foot on the moon, someone else would have…” It begs the question, and ignores the point that Ms. Murray did file and win her case. What is especially important is that she did so openly, as an Atheist, and proudly told the nation’s highest legal entities, “Your petitioners are Atheists…

Strangely, no one uses this peculiar argument against other litigants such as Ed Schempp, or those courageous members of the Jehovah’s Witness sect who have challenged a long list of unconstitutional practices in respect to religious freedom. The argument seems to be reserved exclusively for an Atheist. What does this say about our culture?


The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court decided in an 8-1 vote on June 17, 1963 to overturn the Maryland and Pennsylvania states, thus expanding the earlier ruling in Engel. Government, through the public schools, could not sponsor prayer or Bible verse recitation. The reaction was swift. Cardinal Spellman of New York denounced the court, saying that the ruling was aimed “at the very heart of the Godly tradition in which America’s children have for so long been raised.

According to the Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (ed. Kermit L. Hall, 1992), 111 members of Congress offered 150 assorted amendments. To the present day, these efforts continue with bills attempting to vitiate the First Amendment or permit so-called “voluntary” prayer in classrooms.

In the wake of the 1930 Supreme Court decision, Madalyn Murray went on to establish a permanent Atheist organization in the United States. She organized the first national convention of American Atheists in 1970. She began collecting Atheist, Freethought and related publications which today form the largest private collection of such literature in the United States. Ms. Murray also established the first regular Atheist radio program, and later began a television series which appeared on channels throughout the nation. She spoke at colleges, debated, and defended her Atheist philosophy and support for the separation of government and religion on numerous television programs. In addition, she filed dozens of First Amendment cases, challenging everything from religious slogans on our nation’s money to the requirement that one must swear a religious oath in order to hold an office of public trust.

Why, then, the misrepresentations about the Murray v Curlett case?

Some of the hostility is likely due to the fact that an openly avowed Atheist, not a religion-oriented separationist, saw fit to assert civil rights and contest an unconstitutional practice through the nation’s legal system. Religious groups, especially those representing “minority faiths” had indeed been active in challenging intrusive government endorsement of religion. Many found the presence of an Atheist — especially one who would not keep silent about her philosophical convictions — to be disquieting. This was the equivalent of suggesting that whites should somehow litigate for civil rights on behalf of blacks, or that a suit filed by an openly gay or lesbian citizen would be “unpopular” or “provok hostility.”

It is also significant that Madalyn Murray was a woman who defied the popular conventions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The genesis of the women’s movement had been established by the suffrage campaigns and the mass entry of women into the workforce during World War II. In her life as a “career woman” and mother, Murray lived in both the personal and professional worlds — lawyer, engineer, social worker and, eventually, a prominent First Amendment activist. Even the men who headed various Atheist, Freethought or Humanist groups were not always comfortable with women holding positions of prominent leadership. That has changed considerably, in part due to the courage and outspoken persistence of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Finally there are personal issues that, as in any account, can skew the historical record. Some confuse personal animosity against Madalyn Murray with her actual legal achievements. They also ignore the fact that many First Amendment issues being contested today by various organizations and individuals were challenged by the Murray-O’Hairs during a long and distinguished tenure at the helm of American Atheists. As a result, today many of the cases we see in the news involving displays of religious monuments or slogans in the public square to the requirement that one swear an oath to a deity all harken back to legal challenges initiated by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

So, what about those cases from the 1960’s like Murray, Abington Township v Schempp or Engel v Vitale? All of them required hard work, sacrifice, and even the risk of danger for those who courageously “stood their ground” for the separation of church and state. All who initiated these cases deserve our thanks and support, whatever our differences in respect to religious belief.

For Atheists, however, Murray v Curlett is one which we can especially salute. It was filed by an Atheist. It admonished the highest courts in our land that “Your Petitioners Are Atheists,” and went on to incorporate into our nation’s legal literature terms and definitions pertinent to Atheism. Other cases spoke of “religious liberty” in defense of minority religions. Murray v Curlett spoke on behalf of another segment of American culture, those without religious beliefs or creeds.

June 17, 2003 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Murray v Curlett/Abington Township v Schempp decision. We remember the case, and we honor the courageous petitioners who challenged an egregious government promotion of religion in a crucial public institution.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Atheists Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group