In the fall of 1943, Vashti McCollum was working to juggle college, a marriage and three young boys' lives. The Champaign, Ill., morn was taken aback one day when her oldest son, Jim, asked her to sign a permission slip for him to attend religious instruction at his public elementary school.
The flyer describing the religious courses stated that students would be broken up into separate sections for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Vashti, who had taken political science and law courses in college, quickly sensed the inappropriateness of such classes.
As she recalled in her book, One Woman's Fight, Vashti told Jim, "I'm sorry, but we don't approve of this being taught in the schools. I can't sign it."
Although Vashti and her husband John were certain they opposed religious teaching in public schools, they were less likely to have known that their objection would lead to a three-year court battle that would end in a key U.S. Supreme Court decision, a landmark ruling that upheld separation of church and state and set public schools on the road to religious neutrality.
Many Americans have probably heard of Madalyn Murray O'Hair and the school prayer and Bible-reading cases of the early 1960s. But long before those disputes made it to the Supreme Court, the justices issued a ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education that began to set church-state parameters in public schools. And this year marks the 60th anniversary of that decision.
On March 8, 1948, the high court in McCollum found that the Champaign public schools could not constitutionally allow religious instructors to come onto school grounds during the school day and teach religion courses. It was the first time the high court ruled that the public schools could not be in the business of pushing religion on their students.
Justice Hugo Black, writing for the 8-1 majority, found that the set-up in the Champaign schools--where a local religious council received permission from public school officials to send teachers into the schools to offer Protestant, Catholic or Jewish lessons--was a stark affront to the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state.
The evidence showed "the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the close cooperation between the school authorities and the religious council in promoting religious education," wrote Black. "Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religious classes. This is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith," Black wrote.
Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a concurring opinion in McCollum, called the public schools "a symbol of our secular unity" that "must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects."
McCollum preceded the rulings in the prayer and Bible-reading cases by more than a dozen years. It was not until 1962 that the justices in Engel v. Vitale struck down a New York law mandating prayer, and it was a 1963 decision in Abington v. Schempp when school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading in Pennsylvania and Maryland were ruled unconstitutional. (See Sixty Years Of Controversy," page 12.)
The McCollum decision set the stage for those better-known rulings and helped shape the high court's view that the Constitution forbids the nation's public schools to advance religious doctrines and worship.
The justices in McCollum turned away Illinois officials' argument that the First Amendment should not be applicable to the states. They also rejected claims that the First Amendment was meant to only bar government preference of one religion over another and not government financing of religious activities.
Black and others in the …