Vashti McCollum's Fight for Church–State Separation in Schools

The compelling story one mother's legal battle for a child's right to a secular education free from religious indoctrination

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Vashti McCollum's Fight for Church–State Separation in Schools, URL = <>.

Photo of Vashti McCollum taken during the period of the Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education

The Constitution of the United States of America does not contain a clause requiring any separation of church and state. Even up until 1948, there were no Supreme Court rulings to ensure that this was seen as a basic constitutional principle. The education system became the testing ground for this principle through a number of high-profile court cases. As was common in 1945, James, an Illinois primary school fifth grader, was expected to attend religious instruction classes at his hometown school in Champaign. His 33-year-old mother, Vashti McCollum, decided to campaign for a court to order these classes unconstitutional. At the time, McCollum was working as a part-time square-dancing teacher while bringing up her three children.

Religious instruction classes began at the Champaign school in 1940, with classes offered by Protestants, Catholics and Jews. At that time, classes for Protestants were held in the school buildings, while Catholics and Jews went elsewhere. Children were released from their normal curriculum for 30 minutes weekly to attend sessions conducted by clergy and lay volunteers. James attended in the fourth grade, but told his mother he didn't want to go. His parents objected to his continuing attendance in fifth grade. They viewed the class materials used as inappropriate.

James was the only child withdrawn from religion classes at the school and so was pressured by his teachers to participate. He was made to sit alone in a hallway while the religion classes were in progress. McCollum discussed this with the school superintendent, who said there was nothing he could do about it. Out of frustration, she decided to take the matter to the Illinois courts.  McCollum received support from the Unitarians and was financed by Jewish businessmen, all the while being opposed by church groups.

The case McCollum initiated sought to have the classes abolished. They were taught by members of a private religious organization and not by public school teachers. Her case was that this was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Constitution was incorporated in 1789 and states that 'Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Efforts during the 1780s constitutional conventions failed to agree on a clause to this effect. Several states had established churches, mainly promoted by the gentry classes. James Madison (one of the writers and signatories of the original Constitution) brought up the amendment, which, after a difficult passage, was accepted.

Book cover: The Lord Was Not on Trial: The Inside Story of the Supreme Court's Precedent-Setting McCollum Ruling

At the trial, McCollum argued that her son, James, was 'ostracized and embarrassed by his schoolmates because she refused to let him attend the religious classes'. She also claimed the classes 'were a misuse and waste of taxpayers' money, discriminated against minority faiths and were an unconstitutional merger of church and state'. One of the issues in contention in the Supreme Court was whether it was enough for schools to treat all religious sects equally, which the school claimed was already the case, or whether they had to be neutral between belief and unbelief. McCollum claimed the latter.

McCollum' court challenge occurred just after the end of World War 2, when anti-communist hysteria was beginning to paralyze the country intellectually. The atheism of communists was seen as an essential part of communism's evil, so all things atheist were, by definition, dangerous and evil. Supporting religion as an integral part of the American way of life was one way of declaring one did not share the nastiness of 'godless communism'.

The watching crowd in the courtroom gasped in disbelief when McCollum's father said he was an atheist and the boy, James, said he too had no belief in any god. Such was the strong feeling about atheists in the United States at the time that McCollum received threats of violence and lost her dance-instructor job. The family cat was lynched. She announced herself as an atheist, but later preferred the label 'humanist'.

The Illinois County Court ruled against McCollum. In rejecting McCollum's appeal in the autumn of1946, the Illinois Supreme Court confirmed the ruling of the lower court. She then decided to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which, in June 1947, agreed to hear the case. The federal court decided eight to one in favour of McCollum. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion, stating that the practice in Champaign was 'beyond all question' using tax-established and tax-supported schools 'to aid religious groups to spread their faith'. He added that 'it falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment' which states that 'The First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other in its respective sphere'. This judgement has been the trigger for later cases on school prayer, aid to parochial schools and sectarian religious displays on public property.

Book cover: One Woman's Fight by Vashti McCollum

A related case ran in New York in 1952. Zorach vs Clauson tested the legality of religious education classes conducted during the school day, but held outside of school facilities and not using any taxpayer funded materials. The court ruled six to three in favour of these classes being within the constitutional rules. Soon after, McCollum published her autobiography, One Woman's Fight. Her book has been recently republished. She also went on to serve two terms as President of the American Humanist Association from 1962 to 1965.

McCollum was born in 1912 in New York State as Vashti Cromwell. Her father was an architect who would later become President of the Rochester Society of Free Thinkers. He became an atheist while his two daughters were adolescents. One of his key achievements was persuading the New York education commissioner to abolish religious instruction in the one county where it had been permitted. McCollum enrolled at Cornell University. However, the financial difficulties of the Depression forced her to shift to the less expensive University of Illinois. There, she studied political science and met John McCollum, a horticultural professor. They married in 1933, when she was 21. While her three sons were growing up, she completed a Master's Degree in Mass Communications.

McCollum died in her home town of Champaign in August 2006, aged 93. Her middle son, Dannel, wrote a book about his mother's legal case, The Lord Was Not on Trial: The Inside Story of the Supreme Court's Precedent-Setting McCollum Ruling. The book later became the basis for a teledrama, The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today, released in 2010.

Copyright © 2016

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