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"The most hated woman in America."

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Published on Jan 27, 2008

In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America."
- atheïst Madalyn Murray O'Hair
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.

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.
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. In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America."
http://www.atheists.org

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