Even in death, discord follows O'Hair

Remains: The atheist's son and the organization she founded are at odds over what to do now.

March 23, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

At the height of her fame, she was the angry atheist from suburban Baltimore, a cursing communist who helped get prayer booted from America's public schools at the height of the Cold War. So perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that, even in death, Madalyn Murray O'Hair can create a stir.

Now people are bickering over her remains.

O'Hair disappeared 5 1/2 years ago at age 76, along with her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, 30, and youngest son, Jon Murray, 40. For three years, some people believed they'd drained a few bank accounts and gone into hiding. But in 1999 investigators concluded they'd been kidnapped and killed for money - about $610,000 - most of which was then stolen from the storage warehouse where the killers had stashed it.

But not until last week did authorities conclusively identify the trio's bones, after digging them up in a remote tract of Texas hill country. Texas law says that, once law enforcement agencies are through with them, the remains will then belong to next of kin.

That would be William J. Murray, 54, the very son on whose behalf O'Hair filed suit in 1960, in the school-prayer case that made her name.

The trouble with that outcome, O'Hair's atheist supporters say, is that William parted ways with his mom more than 20 years ago and is now an evangelical Christian supporting right-wing political causes. In fact, he has become something of an anti-Madalyn, occasionally picketing the annual conventions of the organization she founded, American Atheists, and mocking their non-belief.

So, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson said last week that the organization would fight for its right to bury the Murray O'Hairs, arguing that the law allows for their claims as well.

The group's lawyer, Ron Houdyshell, said his services also have been retained on the matter by a mysterious "distant relative" who doesn't want to be identified. For now, he said, he's trying to track down Madalyn's most recent will, which friends believe will reflect her frequently stated wishes that she be speedily cremated after death, lest any "Christers" try to pray over her body.

The whole controversy has struck her son William as tiresomely familiar, much like the loud, rough-and-tumble existence he experienced in the family's two-story rowhouse back on Winford Road, just off Loch Raven Boulevard.

He was a ninth-grader at Woodbourne Junior High School (now Chinquapin Middle School) when the suit was filed in 1960. But by the time it was settled in his favor in 1963 by an 8-1 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court, he was becoming used to being beaten up and harassed by jeering fellow students.

"My feelings on this," he said of the latest mess, "are that a) most of my mother's life was a circus, b) the last five years when she was missing were even more of a circus, and c) it's just time for the circus to end.

"And if I have anything to say about it, I will bury them in an unmarked grave, and there will not be any marker on it for at least a year. I would just like to see all of this put to rest."

And, no, he adds, he doesn't plan to pray at their graveside service, which he said will be a private affair and won't include any preachers. He pointed out that, as a Baptist, he believes the fate of someone's soul is determined before they die, anyway, not afterward, so it's too late for prayer.

Murray lost more than his mother and younger brother, Jon. Robin was his daughter. He fathered her during a wayward period in his teens, then virtually abandoned her to Madalyn, who later adopted the girl. Later, after he'd broken off with his mom, straightened out his life and started a new family, he tried to get back in touch with Robin, but she never answered his letters or e-mails.

Arnold Via, 75, a former vice president of American Atheists and an old friend of Madalyn's, has suggested something of a compromise on the matter. He's not pursuing legal action, but has spoken with Murray by telephone to offer a final resting place at an "atheist cemetery" he set up on a 1.5-acre tract of his secluded wooded homestead in the Shenandoah Valley, near Grottoes, Va.

So far only one person is buried there, Frederick Conway. Conway was an inmate in the Richmond State Penitentiary when he died in 1983 at age 38, but Via knew him as a member of an organization Via had started, the Prison Atheist League of America. Conway's family didn't claim the body, so Via did. He hopes to do the same for all three Murray O'Hairs.

"I'm not an enemy of [William Murray's], but, of course, we see things differently," Via says. "I'm only doing this because of what Madalyn said when she was alive, that she didn't want to be buried where there was a Star of David on one side and a Christian cross on the other. ... It's going to be a fight, no doubt."

For now, the remains belong to the FBI's San Antonio field office, where agents must first decide whether they need to use them any more as evidence against the two men convicted in connection with the case.

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