"Rumor travels faster, but it don't stay put as long as truth," humorist Will Rogers once said. But don't try telling that to the Federal Communications Commission.
A false rumor that atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair is petitioning the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting is now 15 years old--and it still brings in as many as 83,000 letters a month to the federal agency.
Since the FCC started counting in 1976, more than 23.5 million petitions and letters of protest or inquiry about O'Hair have flooded the agency's Washington office.
Last year alone, 1.14 million pieces of mail were sent to Washington and monthly totals early this year are running even higher. The still-traveling rumor also prompted 3,959 phone calls to the federal agency last year.
Although no current cost estimate is available, FCC officials calculated that the commission spent $1.5 million in the first 11 years alone responding to the rumor. Its consumer assistance division sends denials to all inquirers, except those who mail in form letters. The FCC repeatedly has said it has no legal authority to prohibit religious broadcasts.
"It's a fire that is difficult for the FCC to put out," said Audrey Spivack, acting chief of the agency's news media division. She would not speculate on why the rumor persists.
Most religious observers, and O'Hair herself, say the rumor seems plausible because of the atheist's fame as an opponent of religion. A lawsuit by O'Hair contributed to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned devotional Bible reading in public schools. Her name also is frequently, though wrongly, linked to a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that forbade government-mandated prayers in public schools.
"To evangelical Christians she is considered perhaps the archenemy of religion," said Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Columbia University. Balmer also noted that the supposed threat from O'Hair would strike a blow in one area where conservative Christians have been dominant--religious radio and television.
"A lot of people are fearful that the traditional values they hold are threatened, and that they must act to defend God," said Thomas McAnally of Nashville, national president of the Religious Public Relations Council.
McAnally said the United Methodist news and information office he directs has sent out "a half-dozen" releases over 15 years trying to quell the rumor. "The alarm that it triggers in them overshadows the need to find out where the information comes from," he said.
At her American Atheist headquarters in Austin, Tex., O'Hair said she thinks "religion has to have an enemy (to succeed). I've been on radio talk programs where people say, 'Even if you didn't do it, it sounds like something you would do.' They think it's a legitimate way to protest against me."
When Juanita Rayle of Altadena, for example, received a women's club newsletter last month with an attached flyer alerting Christians to the alleged threat, she said, "I was hopping mad when I saw it."
Rayle went to her church, Pasadena First United Methodist, to run off 100 copies to distribute to fellow church members and the Altadena Republican Women's Club. "Boy, they wanted to do something about that old girl," Rayle said.
Rumors having to do with anti-Christian threats don't stop with O'Hair and the FCC.
Procter & Gamble has been plagued since 1981 with virulent rumors about its supposed satanist influences. Rumors of unknown origin have claimed falsely that the company's half-moon and stars trademark is a satanic symbol. Other rumors contended, wrongly, that a company executive on a television talk show credited his success to "satanic influence."
Procter & Gamble dropped the symbol from its packaging in 1985, got several religious leaders to issue disclaimers, and the company filed lawsuits in 1982 and 1985 against individuals for spreading malicious falsehoods. A new wave of rumors coming this year from the South led the Cincinnati-based company to reissue an old letter from evangelist Billy Graham reminding Christians that "it is a sin to 'bear false witness' " and release a letter written last month by Jerry Falwell urging that the rumors be "squelched."
The FCC has not taken such active steps to cut off the O'Hair canard. "We respond to requests for interviews by the news media, but we have a small staff and no means to do an outreach," said Spivack, the FCC spokeswoman.
Religious publications--by Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons, Catholics and others--periodically carry articles criticizing the spurious "campaign" to the FCC. "Experience has shown that church people contribute many" of the protests, said an editorial in the nationally circulated United Methodist Reporter. "Let's waste no more effort or postage on it. Instead, let's use our energy to identify and confront real evils, to share the Good News of God's love with others," the newspaper said.