America’s most prominent atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, hasn’t been seen in public for weeks, giving rise to rumors that she died and that her followers are keeping it quiet so Christians don’t pray over her.
A note was left at her Austin headquarters, American Atheists Inc., telling employees the offices would be shut down until further notice. The building is up for sale, and the normally accessible O’Hair hasn’t returned telephone calls.
Board member Arnold Via said the 76-year-old O’Hair visited him in Virginia on Aug. 11 and was in poor health because of diabetes. That was the last time he saw her.
O’Hair filed the lawsuit in 1962 that led to the Supreme Court ban on school-sponsored prayer. Since then, she has been active in the fight to enforce the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
O’Hair, her son Jon and her daughter, Robin, live together in Austin and work for American Atheists. They left their home and closed the office several weeks ago.
O’Hair is estranged from another son, William J. Murray, a Christian evangelist who heads a group called Citizens to Restore Voluntary School Prayer in Fairfax, Va.
According to Via, the family decided several years ago that when O’Hair dies, the children will take the money from her estate and the organization and go to New Zealand to make sure their brother doesn’t make any claims against it.
“The membership is not to know until everything is over with. Her last request was she would be taken to Houston and cremated,” Via said.
William J. Murray said he hasn’t seen his mother in 20 years.
Associates said the family had always wanted to keep O’Hair’s death quiet because they feared that Christians would claim that she had renounced her atheist beliefs on her deathbed.