Son of atheist found God in 1980

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A10

It was the ultimate betrayal for Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

On Mother’s Day, 1980, her oldest son, William Murray, made an announcement: he had found God, and was abandoning his mother’s atheism for fundamentalist Christianity.

It was made in a letter to the editor in the Baltimore Sun – the paper which, 30 years earlier, had published the letter from Ms. O’Hair that started the debate over school prayer. Eventually, Ms. O’Hair sued the Baltimore school system because young William, then 14, was forced to listen to Bible readings and participate in prayers at his public junior high school.

“I would like to apologize to the people of the City of Baltimore for whatever part I played in the removal of Bible reading and praying from the public schools of that city,” he wrote in the 1980 letter. “I can now see the damage this removal has caused to our nation in the form of loss of faith and moral decline.”

Mr. Murray, 53, heads a conservative Christian political action committee (named Government Is Not God) and a group called the Religious Freedom Foundation. He often lectures and preaches about his conversion experience.

“Unlike my mother, I draw a crowd when I speak,” Mr. Murray said from his office in northern Virginia.

In 1982, Mr. Murray published My Life Without God, a memoir about growing up atheist, in which he savagely attacks his mother, portraying her as a violent, egomaniacal Communist in love with her delusions. It also accuses her of being racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic.

“Our home was so dysfunctional, a storm of chaos,” he said. “Everyone was always fighting.”

One of Mr. Murray’s main goals is, ironically enough, to reverse the school prayer ban he helped bring about.

While he, in some ways, is a mirror image of his mother – establishing multiple organizations, giving speeches, seeking donations – he doesn’t see many similarities between their styles.

One of his most powerful tools in preaching is his own remarkable story: how many other preachers can say they have traveled through as deep a valley of darkness as his mother’s?

“Telling the story helps,” he admits. “A lot of what I do on the evangelistic circuit, I use that story as a central theme.”

The myth of the broadcasting ban; O’Hair not responsible for the petition that shocked millions

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A11

Some might say the true legacy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair is her Supreme Court battle that ended mandatory school prayer. But for employees of the Federal Communications Commission, it’s Petition 2493.

It’s one of the great urban legends of our time: that Ms. O’Hair was petitioning the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting on radio and television. Since 1975, when the rumor started, religious people have been sending letters to the FCC asking them to reject Ms. O’Hair’s efforts.

The problem is: Ms. O’Hair never tried to ban religious broadcasting.

By 1991, the FCC had received more than 25 million pieces of mail opposing the “petition.” At that point, the commission stopped counting, although it estimates it still receives 1 million letters a year.

The origin of Petition 2493 has nothing to do with Ms. O’Hair. In December, 1974, two attorneys unaffiliated with Ms. O’Hair filed a petition asking for regulations on religious organizations taking up a large percentage of reserved educational frequencies on the FM dial and on TV. Their goal was to make it easier for minority owners to gain access to the frequencies.

The petition was assigned number 2493 and was rejected in August, 1975. End of story, right?

Somehow, the petition became associated with Ms. O’Hair, who was then still regularly featured in the media for her efforts to keep religion out of government activities. Churches across the religious spectrum asked their members to send letters to Washington. At one point, 13 FCC employees did nothing but open mail and answer phone calls regarding Petition 2493.

Now, the campaign has moved into the world of e-mail, as well. As one recent e-mail “counterpetition” goes:

“Ms. O’Hare [sic] is also campaigning to remove all CHRISTMAS PROGRAMS, CHRISTMAS SONGS AND CHRISTMAS CAROLS from Public Schools…Christians must unite on this! Please do not take this lightly; we did once and lost prayer in schools and in offices across the nation!!!”

Ms. O’Hair may be dead, but the rumor that she is attempting to lobby the FCC from the grave lives on.