Why Madalyn Murray O'Hair Was the Most Hated Woman in America

Madalyn Murray O'Hair in Toronto on January 24, 1984. REG INNELL/TORONTO STAR/GETTY

Have you seen Ron Reagan on MSNBC lately? Not on the talk shows: In a commercial that has appeared during Morning Joe and The Rachel Maddow Show, the former radio host and political gadfly is promoting the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that is "working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended."

It's shocking to see the son of a conservative icon preaching the word of no word, adding, with a smile, that he's "not afraid of burning in hell." And it's worth noting that the old advertisement couldn't get on the air when it was produced two years ago. Atheism is having a moment in America, it seems, with comedian Ricky Gervais battling the forces of organized religion on Twitter, plus Stephen Colbert's The Late Show and Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University.

There were pioneers in atheism, and they weren't all burned at the stake. "The most hated woman in America" was the sobriquet Life magazine bestowed on Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose suit against the Baltimore Public School System went all the way to the Supreme Court and ended prayer in public schools in 1963. Her success there led to other challenges; she protested when American astronauts read scripture during space launches, and when a nativity scene was mounted on the rotunda of the Texas Capitol. She sued to have "In God We Trust" taken off U.S. currency and to have "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. In the relatively god-fearing America of the '60s and '70s, she was like a villain in big-time wrestling. Big, loud and often obscene, O'Hair was a natural on television, starting with the Phil Donahue show (where she debated evangelist Bob Harrington, "The Chaplain of Bourbon Street") before finding a seat on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show couch.

"She played the media very well," says Tommy O'Haver, who directed a film about O'Hair, The Most Hated Woman in America (Netflix). "She was one of the original provocateurs, which we see today in multitudes," he adds, name-checking Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. "But most of these provocateurs today are playing for the other team. Certainly not her team."

"Historically, women who have changed the world…women who have spoken loud and clear about their well-founded thoughts and ideas about things, they generally get called pariahs or bitches or troublemakers," says actor Melissa Leo, who channels O'Hair in the movie with body padding and an obstreperousness turned up to 11. "Is that who she really is or is that something she was being to get a point across? If she sat there quietly and politely and spoke about the wrongs of civil rights [abuse], who the fuck would listen?"

Leo, who won an Academy Award for her role as the long-suffering mother in The Fighter, yells that last line somewhat for effect. She's at SXSW, promoting Most Hated Woman and a Showtime comedy series called I'm Dying Up Here, and she has clearly given O'Hair's bad rep some thought. As the founder of American Atheists, she received a lot of donations among the piles of hate mail. Quite a bit of that money ended up in a private account in New Zealand; her creative bookkeeping was partly responsible for her demise. On the subject of O'Hair's self-enrichment, Leo is also forgiving. "Everybody's got to earn a living," she says, "and it was already established that it was very difficult for her to work within the system." (Before her success with the Baltimore suit, O'Hair had been fired from several jobs.) "I had a mother like that myself, a wonderful woman she was; no one could call her a bitch or a pariah. But that woman had a hard time holding a job, primarily because she was working for men, who liked to do it a certain way."

Even by contemporary standards, O'Hair's family life was unconventional. She lived with her devout parents as she railed against religion. Both of her sons were born out of wedlock, and she filed her school-prayer suit in the name of the eldest, William Murray Jr., played by Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men's Pete Campbell), who wittingly or not became the poster child for atheism in America. The film depicts young Bill entering his classroom with his mother as the Lord's Prayer is being recited; later, we see an older Bill in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, speaking of "a sudden rush of sorrow" that brought him into the program. And then the meeting ends with the assembled reciting…the Lord's Prayer. ("Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.…") In 1980, Murray told his mother he had embraced Jesus; a few years later, after battling over his conversion in public, O'Hair disowned her son. "Goddamn zombie 12-steppers got ahold of him," says O'Hair in the film.

"Every child has to make his rebellion," says Leo. "That's what growing up is. And depending on what the foundation is, the rebellion can be the opening to an adult relationship between the grown-up child and the parent, or it can be the shutdown of the relationship entirely."

In his book, My Life Without God, and in subsequent interviews, Murray has portrayed O'Hair as a sort of demonic stage mother. "My mother loves confrontation and she never hesitated to use me as an accomplice in her schemes," he said in a 2002 episode of Forensic Files. "She wanted to push the school prayer issue as far as she could. She wanted me to keep a record of prayer and Bible readings in school.… My mother made me a spy in the cause of atheism."

And in Murray's telling, it was her godless ways that killed her. "My mother, brother and daughter were murdered by fellow atheists," he said. David Waters, the ex-con who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered O'Hair, her granddaughter and Murray's half-brother Jon Garth, had worked for American Atheists and learned of her secret accounts. Waters had stolen over $50,000 while working for O'Hair (she liked to hire ex-cons, according to Murray) and was able to avoid jail time by paying the money back. But that didn't prevent O'Hair from writing a scathing denunciation of Waters in the American Atheists newsletter in which she discussed his past crimes (he'd been jailed as a teenager for knocking his prostitute mom down a flight of stairs before pissing on her) and made insinuations about his sexuality.

"You've sucked more cocks than your mother!" Leo's O'Hair tells Waters in the film. And this while he's holding a gun. ("A stream of profanity came out of my mother's mouth," Murray once said. "She was asked to leave restaurants; she was once asked to leave a truck stop because she was offending the truck drivers.")

The scenes between the family's abduction (August 27, 1995) and their murder, weeks later, were largely a matter of conjecture for O'Haver and his writing partner, Irene Turner. Their previous feature, An American Crime, was also based on a real-life murder case (O'Haver calls Most Hated Woman a "true-crime biopic"), and he's hoping people will come for the noir and stay for the religious-freedom issues.

"I didn't approach this film with an atheist agenda," says O'Haver, who was raised Catholic and does not call himself an atheist. "I just thought she was an interesting character, and I do believe in the separation of church and state, and that was an important thing she accomplished.… But then when they released the trailer [for Most Hated Woman] on YouTube, I was looking at some of the comments and it was all either people saying, 'Go, atheism!' or 'Oh, you atheist heathens are going to burn in hell!' I didn't know people still really thought this way. Of course, they do."