If you’ve seen Netflix’s The Most Hated Woman In America, all about American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the woman who helped get mandatory Christian prayers out of public schools, then you might get the impression that O’Hair embezzled money from her own organization.
As the movie suggests, O’Hair skimmed money from the group, put it in an offshore account, and she was kidnapped and held for ransom by an office worker who discovered the cash. It’s a major plot point of the movie.
It’s also not true, according the the organization she founded.
In a statement released yesterday by American Atheists — their first official comments on the film since it was released — they thanked the producers for “shining a light on a passionate, devoted, and tireless advocate” for church/state separation before pointing out what the film got wrong:
It is, however, important to note that this film is a work of fiction based on Madalyn’s life. It isn’t a documentary and many of the conversations, events, and even people are created for the sake of the story, rather than for accuracy. To be clear, we have seen no credible evidence that there was financial impropriety on the part of the O’Hairs as was implied in the film.
American Atheists is fully transparent with its finances. We complete the required IRS Form 990 each year and have our finances audited annually to ensure that we are in compliance with non-profit best practices. This information is publicly available on our website at www.atheists.org/about/finances
We pride ourselves in going above and beyond what is required of us for transparency and believe that the same standards should apply to churches that apply to us.
I haven’t heard anyone suggest that American Atheists is committing any financial impropriety today, so I fail to see the relevance of posting 990s that go back to 2009, as if that addresses anything O’Hair did 15 years prior to that (though it’s still good practice). That said, it’s important to know that the people at American Atheists have no reason to believe O’Hair took money from them.
They don’t believe it now. They didn’t believe it then. And yet that’s the narrative that continues to swirl around O’Hair’s legacy. There’s a lot of stuff she did worth criticizing, but saying she stole money from the group she founded shouldn’t be taken as gospel.