McCollum v. Board of Education: A lesson in liberty

Monday, March 11, 2013

In 1940, a group of community leaders in Champaign, Illinois joined together to give young people a better moral foundation by offering religion classes in the public schools.

It was creative, thoughtful and well-intended.  It was also unconstitutional.

The Champaign public school district’s decision to invite representatives of multiple faiths to teach in its classrooms led to a historic U.S.  Supreme Court decision handed down 65 years ago on March 8, 1948. For the first time, the Court declared that the establishment clause of the First Amendment applied to the states, sharply limiting efforts to incorporate religious activities into public schools.

The anniversary of the decision was marked by a special program at the University of Illinois on March 7. It began with a screening of “The Lord is not on Trial Here Today,” a compelling documentary by University of Illinois Professor Jay Rosenstein  that tells the story of how Champaign resident Vashti McCollum challenged the program in court in 1945 as a violation of the First Amendment.  

Although the school district described the program as voluntary, her 10-year old son Jim was ostracized and beaten up when he didn’t participate in the lessons.  While the students stayed in the classroom for religious instruction. Jim was sent out in the hallway, the usual turf for disciplinary problems.

After the screening, I sat in on a panel discussion that included Daniel Hamilton, associate dean and professor at the University of Illinois School of Law, Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel of the ACLU of Illinois and Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religious Foundation in Madison, WI.

The panelists were united in their sense of the historic importance of the Court’s decision and their admiration for Vashti McCollum’s stand.

McCollum’s  lawsuit made her an outcast in her hometown for three years.  One of her sons has said their home address was the best known in Champaign.

At a time when social media and 24-hour cable television whip up an outrage of the day, it’s important to note just how courageous McCollum was.  Assailed in the press as a bad mother and atheist and widely characterized as a subversive, she endured these attacks bravely.

McCollum  lost her case in circuit court and in the Illinois Supreme Court,  but prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court by an 8-to-1 vote.  The Court found excessive entanglement among school officials, tax dollars and local religious organizations, concluding that the religious education program violated the principle of separation of church and state.

In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black said, “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 within its respective sphere “

Four years later, a Supreme Court hedged a bit in Zorach v. Clauson, upholding a New York program that allowed religious education in a public school district. The Court distinguished the case from McCollum, noting that the classes were not on school grounds and did not use public funds.

But the McCollum case had set an important standard, clearly establishing that the government could not use its resources to promote or support religion in public schools. 

Like so many critically important Supreme Court decisions concerning the Bill of Rights, this case depended upon the courage of a single citizen determined to assert her rights and to keep fighting for what she believed in, all the way to the highest court in the land.  It doesn’t get much more American than that.

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