American Atheists - Origin and Early Legal Action

Origin and Early Legal Action

American Atheists was founded in 1963 by Madalyn Murray O'Hair as the Society of Separationists, after the legal cases Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1959) which were later consolidated. Both Schempp and Murray challenged mandatory prayer in public schools. Over the years American Atheists has filed numerous lawsuits against public institutions it considers to have breached the wall of separation between church and state. The organization, which has approximately 2,200 members, is headquartered in Cranford, New Jersey.

In 1959, Murray filed a case on behalf of her son, William J. Murray, who was being forced to attend Bible readings in school and was being harassed by teachers and school administrators for refusing to participate.

The consolidated case, usually cited as Abington School District v. Schempp (although arguably Murray v. Curlett became the more famous of the two), was argued before the United States Supreme Court on February 27 and February 28, 1963. In her opening statement, Madalyn Murray said, in part:

"Your petitioners are atheists and they define their beliefs as follows. An atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy. An atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it, and enjoy it. An atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment. He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter. He believes that we are our brother's keepers and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now."

The justices rendered their decision on June 17, 1963. It was in favor of the petitioners, 8-1. They ruled that state-mandated prayer and unison bible readings in public schools were a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Justice Potter Stewart was the sole dissenter.

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