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Atheist Loses Legal Bid to Control Estate

February 01, 1990|ARMANDO ACUNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The nation's best-known atheist has lost a key lawsuit in her fight to control a fortune left by a religion-hating eccentric.

The court defeat leaves the $14-million estate of the late, cranky James Hervey Johnson of San Diego--as well as the oldest atheist publication in the country--in the hands of a church-going Episcopalian and a Mormon, who say they intend to carry out Johnson's wishes of exposing "religion as against reason."

Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheism's highest-profile leader, says the setback is only temporary and that she intends to keep fighting in the courts to keep "atheist money" away from those who believe in God.

"I'll be badgering them for the next 20 years," vowed O'Hair, who played a role nearly 30 years ago in outlawing prayer in public schools and who also tried to prevent "In God We Trust" from being printed on American currency.

The dispute arose even before Johnson--whose notions of holistic health often compelled him to go long periods consuming nothing more than orange juice and condensed milk--died at 87 of a heart attack in August, 1988.

For years, Johnson and O'Hair were enemies. While O'Hair was making headlines promoting atheist causes throughout the country, Johnson was quietly amassing a fortune by selling family property and investing the proceeds in the stock market.

In the early 1960s, Johnson assumed control of the Truth Seeker, which at 117 years is the oldest atheist magazine in the nation, as well as two old atheist organizations--the American Assn. for the Advancement of Atheism (AAAA) and the National League for the Separation of Church and State, also known as the National Liberal League.

Through the Truth Seeker, Johnson launched racist and anti-Semitic attacks against blacks and Jews, among others, that drove away many allies and left him an outcast.

But among all the things he detested, one stood out: religion.

In a will filed a year before his death, Johnson demanded that his millions be placed in a trust and that the income be used "to publicize my views on religion and health." He selected Lawrence Y. True to control the estate.

True, a bank trust officer, had known Johnson for 25 years, but the men weren't close. And True is an Episcopalian active in his congregation.

That fact sent O'Hair into a frenzy.

How, she asked, could a Christian and believer in religion and God have any idea about promoting atheism? She and 10 other old-line atheists filed a lawsuit in San Diego federal court, claiming they were entitled to control the estate and take ownership of the Truth Seeker. O'Hair, based in Austin, Tex., even began printing a duplicate Truth Seeker. And after Johnson's death, she formally challenged the will in probate court.

But one after another, O'Hair's legal challenges have been rebuffed. First, a probate judge ruled against O'Hair's lawsuit. Then a judge dismissed the federal case Jan. 8.

O'Hair said she plans a legal counterattack that includes appealing the federal court ruling. If that fails, she will file another lawsuit in the state courts in either California or New York, where the Truth Seeker was incorporated.

Meanwhile, Johnson's $14-million estate moves forward. A probate judge has allowed it to be split into two parts: About $3.5 million will be used to support the Truth Seeker, a publication that bears little resemblance to the magazine Johnson published.

To its critics, the new version has nothing to do with promoting atheism but is a mishmash of New Age philosophy headed by Bonnie Lange, a Mormon and Johnson's former friend and housekeeper.

The rest of the estate has been placed in a charitable educational trust. Under the law, annual income from the trust, about $1 million this year, must be disbursed by the end of the calendar year to organizations that promote Johnson's views on religion and health.

True said he will not give money from the charitable trust to groups that reflect the extreme views Johnson at times espoused, such as those demeaning to blacks, Mexicans and Jews or that promote dangerous health concepts. "I don't intend to use it for groups with far-out views or ideas," he said.

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