American Atheists

American Atheists
Formation 1963 (1963) Austin, Texas, U.S.
Purpose Promote atheism and secular humanism; oppose religion in the public sphere

American Atheists is a non-profit activist organization in the United States dedicated to defending the civil liberties of atheists and advocating complete separation of church and state.[1] It provides speakers for colleges, universities, clubs, and the news media. It also publishes books and the quarterly American Atheist Magazine, currently edited by Pamela Whissel.[1][2][3] The organization was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair in 1963, as a consequence of her role in removing mandatory prayer from public schools.[4]


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 considered 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.[5] 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.


O'Hair (1963-1995)

On August 27, 1995, Madalyn, Jon and Robin O'Hair disappeared from the organization's former Austin, Texas, headquarters, along with over $550,000 of the organization's funds. The three had been abducted, robbed and murdered by ex-convict and former employee David Waters.[6][7]

Johnson (1995-2008)

Ellen Johnson succeeded Madalyn O'Hair as president after her disappearance.[8]

On November 2, 2002, at the Godless Americans March on Washington, Johnson was one of the featured speakers.[9]

In 2002, American Atheists took Wildwood, Florida, to court for "displaying religious decorations at City Hall."[10]

In 2004, the group held their 30th annual national convention. The convention attracted several best-selling atheist authors and leaders from several other secular organizations.[11]

In July 2006, Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said in an interview that, "Agnostics, atheists and bigots suddenly lose all that when their life is on the line." In response Master Sgt. Kathleen Johnson, who founded the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and served in Iraq, said that was "a denial of our contributions" and "A lot of people manage to serve without having to call on a higher power."[12] American Atheists helped organize a campaign against the "no atheists in foxholes" claim.[13] The logo of the American Atheists is an allowed "emblem of belief" approved by the US Department of Veterans Affairs "for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers".[14]

In May 2007, ABC News featured a report on discrimination and bad treatment the Smalkowski family suffered from government officials in Hardesty, Oklahoma.[15] The report included information about an ongoing lawsuit, which was filed by American Atheists on behalf of the Smalkowski family. The lawsuit alleges the Hardesty Public School District violated Nicole Smalkowski's constitutional rights with bullying behavior, trumped-up charges, and suspension from the school basketball team.[15][16] Also in May, Joe Zamecki organized a local demonstration at the state capitol building in Austin, Texas, against the National Day of Prayer, in contrast to the official government creation, recognition, and status of the prayer events on the day.[17]

An announcement posted on the organization's blog on May 2, 2008, stated that Johnson was leaving the presidency of American Atheists for unspecified reasons. It was later revealed that her removal was not voluntary.[18]

Zindler (2008)

Frank Zindler became acting president between May 2008 and September 2008.[19]

Buckner (2008-2010)

Ed Buckner was appointed president in September 2008, and remained in the position until September 2010.

Silverman (2010-2018)

David Silverman became president in September 2010.[20] In 2018, David Silverman was terminated as president of American Atheists after an internal investigation into allegations about Silverman's sexual assaults and financial conflicts. Silverman denies any misconduct. [21][22][23]

Buckner (2018- )

In May, 2018, Ed Buckner was appointed Interim Executive Director until the position was permanently filled.[24]

Godless Americans PAC

In November 2005, the Godless Americans Political Action Committee (GAPAC), an American PAC, was formed by American Atheists to endorse political candidates who support the separation of church and state.[25] According to Los Angeles Times, atheists subsequently have become more outspoken about being an ignored voice in the United States.[26]

The PAC officially states it does not want government to associate with religion in any way.[25] It opposes Christmas being a federal holiday or any mention of God on currency or in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Atheist monument

In May 2013 the American Atheists settled with Bradford County, Florida, regarding a monument containing the ten commandments. The American Atheists would be allowed to place their own monument onto public property. This marked the first time that such a monument was placed on public land.[27] The monument is being furnished by American Atheists via a grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.[28]


The American Atheists organization is known for its controversial antireligious billboards, intended by the organization to draw out closeted atheists within religious groups. A billboard on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway displaying the Hebrew Tetragrammaton erected after the celebration of the Jewish holy day of Purim caused outrage from many Jews.[29] The same billboard was rejected by a landowner in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood which drew a reaction from American Atheists' president David Silverman, who stated that this was a case of religious bigotry.[30][31] A satirical billboard depicting the Nativity during the Christmas season was also erected in 2010, causing a reaction from many American Christians, including the construction of a counter-billboard by the Catholic League.[32][33] A billboard in Paterson, New Jersey with the name of Allah in Arabic and the words "You know it’s a myth and you have a choice" drew criticism from local Muslims who "felt it was disrespectful and insulting but they agreed that the American Atheists have the right to put up their billboards where they want."[34]


On 29 July 2014, at a New York launch party, the group revealed an Internet television channel on the Roku streaming media platform, showing a 24-hour live stream of programming alongside an on-demand service. The President of American Atheists, David Silverman, explained that the new channel would "...provide a breadth of content, from science to politics to comedy, all centered around our common freedom from religion."[35] AtheistTV became only the second atheist channel on Roku, but it is the first atheist channel with both live and on-demand video content. The platform hosts over 400 religious channels,[36] yet a few outspoken religious figures saw AtheistTV as a sign of intolerance towards Christianity.

Court cases

American Atheists have won several important cases involving the separation of church and state, and currently have many ongoing lawsuits.[37]

  • Murray v. Curlett (1963) Challenged Bible reading and prayer recitation in Maryland public schools.
  • Murray v. United States (1964) To force the Federal Communications Commission to extend the Fairness Doctrine so that Atheists could have equal time with religion on radio and television.
  • Murray v. Nixon (1970) Challenged weekly religious services in the White House.
  • O'Hair v. Paine (1971) Challenged NASA's religious use of the space program to require astronauts to read the Bible during a space flight.
  • O'Hair v. Cooke (1977) Challenged the opening prayer at city council meetings in Austin, Texas.
  • O'Hair v. Blumenthal (1978) Challenged the inclusion of the phrase "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency.
  • O'Hair v. Hill (1978) To have removed from the Texas constitution a provision requiring a belief in God of persons holding offices of public trust.
  • O'Hair v. Andrus (1979) Challenged the use of National Park facilities for the pope to hold a Roman Catholic mass on the Mall in Washington, D.C..
  • O'Hair v. Clements (1980) This case tried to remove the nativity scene displayed in the rotunda of the capitol building in Austin, Texas.
  • Carter, et al. v Broadlawns Medical Center, et al. (1984-1987) Defense of Secular Medicine in 72-year history of Polk County Hospital never hired a chaplain, US Sup Ct, cert den.
  • Steel Crosses on Utah Highways (2005)[38]
  • Society of Separationists vs. Pleasant Grove (2004)
  • American Atheists vs. Starke, Florida.(2005)[39]
  • Society of Separationists vs. Pleasant Grove (2004)
  • American Atheists, Inc., and Steve Walker vs. City of Detroit, City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority, and Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.
  • Clyde Baxley, Grace Brown, Edward Byford, Bill Jager, Al Sundquist, James Woolever, Arlen Acharias, and Dorothy Anne Zappa Vs. State of Alaska.
  • American Atheists Inc., Mark W. Butler v. The City of Jacksonville, Florida (2006) (Sued for the city's tax-funded "Faith Day")[40]
  • Chester Smalkowski, Nadia Smalkowski, American Atheists v. Hardesty Public School District, The County Of Texas County, Oklahoma, The Town Of Hardesty, Oklahoma. (Filed August 2006)[41]
  • American Atheists Inc., Lon Bevill, v. City Of Stark, Florida. (2007)[42]
  • American Atheists Inc., Edwin Kagin, v. Kentucky Office of Homeland Security (2009)[43]
  • American Atheists Inc., Daniel Cooney, v. Bradford County, Florida (2012)[44] Filed suit over a display of the Ten Commandments on public property. Went to mediation. Resolved with a monument designed by American Atheists.
  • American Atheists v. Port Authority (2011) Filed suit against the placement of cross-shaped steel beams called the "World Trade Center Cross" at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.[45] On March 28, 2013, United States District Court Judge Deborah Batts granted a motion of judgment in favor of the defendant. American Atheists stated at the time that they would appeal this decision.[46]


Name Term of Office
Vacant 2018–present
David Silverman 2010–2018
Ed Buckner 2008–2010
Frank Zindler 2008 (interim)
Ellen Johnson 1995–2008
Jon Garth Murray 1986–1995 (de jure)
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
1963–1986 (de jure)
1986–1995 (de facto)

See also


  1. 1 2 "About: American Atheists". American Atheists. 2006. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  2. Homepage of the American Atheist Magazine
  3. Entry for 'The American atheist' at World Cat. Archived November 29, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. McAnally, Amber (2001-04-02). "Waters sentenced for role in O'Hair murder". The Daily Texan. Archived from the original on 2008-01-18. Retrieved 2007-12-01.
  5. "Court Case: Murray vs. Curlett". American Atheists. 2006. Archived from the original on 21 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  6. MacCormack, John (2001-02-01). "Dead Giveaway". Dallas Observer. Archived from the original on January 13, 2008. Retrieved 2007-12-01.
  7. Manning, Lona (2003-09-29). "The Murder of Madalyn Murray O'Hair: America's Most Hated Woman". Crime Magazine. Archived from the original on 2008-12-08. Retrieved 2008-11-27.
  8. "Welcome from the President of American Atheists". American Atheists. 2006. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  9. "Godless Americans Rally on DC Mall". Godless Americans. 2007. Archived from the original on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  10. Kristina Henderson, "Florida atheists challenge angels on lawn of City Hall, Mayor suggests if someone is offended, ignore display", Washington Times, December 5, 2002.
  11. William Booth, "True Non-Believers: In California, One Convention So Over God," Washington Post, April 12, 2004.
  12. Rebecca Phillips, "Beliefwatch: Foxholes," Newsweek, August 21, 2006.
  13. "NBC, Couric and Today Show Need to Hear From You". American Atheists. 2006-04-05. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  14. "Available Emblems of Belief for Placement on Government Headstones and Markers". National Cemetery Administration. United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved March 21, 2014.
  15. 1 2 "Atheists in a town of Believers". ABC News. 2007-05-11. Archived from the original on October 8, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  16. "Chester Smalkowski, Nadia Smalkowski, American Atheists v. Hardesty Public School District" (PDF). American Atheists. August 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 26, 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  17. "Atheists go on the political offensive in God-fearing US," The Sunday Telegraph, May 6, 2007.
  18. Announcement at NoGod blog
  19. History of the Organization; American Atheists; 2018
  20. Dave Silverman, President-elect
  21. "Update Regarding David Silverman". American Atheists, Inc. April 13, 2018. Retrieved April 13, 2018.
  22. Mehta, Hemant (April 13, 2018). "David Silverman Has Been Fired from American Atheists". Patheos. Retrieved April 13, 2018.
  23. This Firebrand Atheist Was Just Fired After Allegations Of Financial Conflicts And Sexual Assault Peter Aldhous, Buzzfeed, 14 April 2018
  24. Former American Atheists President Ed Buckner Appointed Interim Executive Director; American Atheists; May 2, 2018
  25. 1 2 Salmon, Jacqueline (2007-09-15). "In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-09-27.
  26. Sam Harris. "10 myths – and 10 truths – about atheism," Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2006.
  27. "Press Release: Atheists to Unveil Florida Courthouse Monument". American Atheists. 29 May 2013. Retrieved 17 June 2013.
  28. Maddow, Rachel (6 July 2012). "This Week in God". MSNBC. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
  29. Patel, Vikram (Mar 8, 2012). "Atheist Billboard Enrages Jewish Community". The Brooklyn Ink.
  30. Marrapodi, Eric (Mar 7, 2012). "Hebrew atheist billboard gets bumped in New York". CNN.
  31. Gryboski, Michael (Mar 26, 2012). "Atheist Billboard Not Allowed in Orthodox Jewish Community". The Christian Post.
  32. Dolan, Laura (Nov 30, 2010). "Dueling billboards face off in Christmas controversy". CNN.
  33. Slotnik, David (Nov 30, 2010). "Catholics Fire Back in Christmas Billboard Battle". The New York Times.
  34. Gypsy, Joyful (Mar 7, 2012). "Atheist Billboard Goes Up in NJ Muslim Neighborhood". CNN.
  35. , NY Times coverage of launch.
  36. , Religion & Spirituality section, for US customers.
  37. "American Atheists Lawsuits". American Atheists. 2006. Archived from the original on 2 October 2007. Retrieved 2012-01-02.
  38. (dead link). American Atheists. Archived December 15, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  39. (dead link). American Atheists. Archived September 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  40. "Atheists file lawsuit over Day of Faith". Florida Times-Union. 2006-09-02. Retrieved 2007-10-27.
  41. (dead link). American Atheists. Archived September 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  42. (dead link). American Atheists. Archived September 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  43. Steitzer, Stephanie (August 26, 2009 ). "Court strikes down reference to God in state law". The Courier-Journal.
  44. (dead link). American Atheists. Archived June 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  45. Kirpalani, Reshma (27 July 2011). "American Atheists Sue Over World Trade Center Cross". ABC News. Retrieved 17 June 2013.
  46. Sekulow, Jordan; Clark, Matthew (4 April 2013). "Why the 'Ground Zero Cross' should remain". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 June 2013.
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