Do you know which urban legend is debunked in a recorded telephone message sponsored by a federal government agency?
Here's a hint: It's the only legend that has a number assigned to it by the Federal Communications Commission.Still not sure? Then does FCC Petition 2493 ring a bell?
That was the petition supposedly filed by Madalyn Murray O'Hair requesting a ban on religious broadcasting, and the number is cited on millions of photocopied fliers urging all good Christian Americans to voice their opposition by sending their signatures on an attached form to the FCC.
The fliers claim that Madalyn (or "Madelyn") Murray O'Hair (or "O'Hare," "O'Hara," etc.), "whose efforts successfully eliminated the use of Bible reading and prayer from all public schools 15 years ago," now has 27,000 signatures on her petition and has been granted a hearing. The FCC will rule against her, the fliers state, only if it receives at least 1 million signatures from people opposing the ban.
You can hear the FCC's response to these appeals by dialing (202) 632-7000 on a touch-tone phone, listening to the recorded instructions and entering the proper numbers. The recorded statement calls the flier's claims "absolutely false" and reveals that since 1975 the FCC has received more than 30 million pieces of mail concerning Petition 2493.
The message concludes by urging callers not to send any more signature forms, nor to spread the story of the "false petition" any further.
Obviously, if a mere 1 million signatures would suffice to kill O'Hair's case, it would have been doomed long ago. And if the efforts of numerous debunkers had been successful, the legend would have died as well.
But neither the FCC's statement nor hundreds of articles in the press exposing this legendary petition (including a column by yours truly) have had much effect on this misguided Christian crusade. Lately I've received copies of the Madalyn Murray O'Hair petition fliers from several parts of the United States, and their wording is nearly identical to those that first circulated in 1975.
That year, the FCC did rule against a petition that actually had the number 2493. But it was submitted by two California educational TV producers, and it asked the commission, among other things, to review the operating practices of non-commercial educational broadcasting stations, including those licensed by religious organizations.
Shortly afterwards, the FCC began to receive mail referring to the non-existent O'Hair case. Then, signed forms cut from the fliers began arriving in a flood that's never abated. Since the fliers urge readers to make 10 copies for distribution to others, the crusade may never end.
The FCC has gone so far as to get permission from the U.S. Postal Service to destroy all letters marked 2493 without even opening them, and most of the mail-in forms specify that the sender should write "Petition 2493" in the lower left-hand corner of the envelope.
Although O'Hair did bring the suit that resulted in the Supreme Court's 1963 ban on school prayer, she has never petitioned the FCC to stop religious broadcasting. Still, the fliers consistently refer to O'Hair's suit as having occurred "15 years ago," and they go on to suggest that Petition 2493 would affect school Christmas programs - something the FCC has no jurisdiction over.
The wording of the signature form repeats these errors, saying "I protest any human effort to remove from radio or television any programs designed to show faith in God . . . or to remove Christmas songs or carols from the public school system."
There's also a backlash variation of the story. Some people - including O'Hair's own son, William J. Murray, who is a convert to Christianity - claim that atheists are printing and distributing the fliers telling about the fake petition just to make Christians look foolish.
Atheist groups deny the charge.
It has become a holy war of rumors and legends, with the FCC futilely trying to bring an end to the conflict.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.