Members of American Atheists and their leader, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, munched cake and sipped champagne Friday to celebrate 25 years of prayer-free public schools and the opening of the group's new headquarters.
O'Hair, 69, conceded she used a bit of trickery in her campaign in the early 1960s to have prayer and Bible readings banned from the nation's public schools. She said she invented a non-existent public interest group so it would not appear that she was fighting the battle alone."I lied during the whole thing," O'Hair said. "The public wasn't willing to listen to just one single woman alone with two kids tugging at her . . . so what I did was invent the Maryland Committee for the Separation of Church and State, which really didn't exist.
"That was me, but it was a good name that way, I invented an organization that didn't exist, and from that, later on, I couldn't stand calling it the Maryland Committee so I just named it American Atheists," she said.
Ruling on a lawsuit filed by O'Hair on behalf of her sons - Jon and William Murray - the Supreme Court on June 17, 1963, banned prayer in public schools.
"The court found that prayer was the quintessence of religion," O'Hair said. "This is the absolute thing that should not be in public schools."
William Murray has since become a fundamentalist religious evangelist. Jon Murray is president of American Atheists and runs its daily operations.
O'Hair said her atheist movement - which now has chapters in 35 states - was very unpopular in the beginning, but has come a long way in 25 years.
"To be an atheist was to be un-American. To be an atheist was to be a communist. To be an atheist was to be outside ordered society . . . and a female atheist, of course, was lower than a slut dog," she said.
"That was when we picked out our colors, which were red, white and blue, to rile everybody in the United States who were telling us to go back to Russia," she said.
O'Hair used the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling to formally open the group's new headquarters in a 17,000-square-foot, $1.7 million building in northeast Austin. The ceremonies included a ribbon cutting, cake and champagne.
"It's not about to go away," she said. "We have American atheism here to stay forever, and welcome to this place."
The new facility has $500,000 in printing equipment and other facilities. Its library, which includes 40,000 books and 250,000 articles, pamphlets and other atheist literature - some dating back to the 17th century - is valued at $3 million, O'Hair said.
The group publishes American Atheist magazine, which is available in 1,200 public libraries, and an estimated 2.5 million people watch the Atheist Forum on 90 cable televison systems across the nation, she said.
O'Hair said that in Texas alone, churches own $81 billion worth of property and buildings that are not taxed.