Vashti's Victory: How a Valiant Illinois Woman and Her Family Won the First Supreme Court Verdict on Religion and Public Schools Fifty Years Ago
Boston, Rob, Church & State
Light-hearted pranks are common on Halloween, but in 1945 the annual spooky celebration took a sinister turn in Champaign, Ill., at the home of Vashti and John McCollum and their three sons.
Answering a knock at the door, Vashti McCollum was pelted with a barrage of rotten tomatoes and garbage. Voices from the dark screamed "atheist" at her. It took an appearance by a police squad car to disperse the culprits, but later some returned and tried to kick in the door.
What had the McCollum family done to provoke such hostility? Vashti McCollum, acting on behalf of her son James, had dared to speak out against a religious instruction program operating in the local public school and had filed suit to block it. That was enough to raise the ire of some in the east central Illinois community.
McCollum's complaint eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where in an 8-1 action, the justices struck down the in-school religious practices in question. The Supreme Court's verdict was handed down March 8, 1948, making this year the 50th anniversary of the McCollum v. Board of Education case.
The McCollum decision is sometimes overshadowed by the more controversial high court rulings against school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and '63. Many Americans especially those who listen to Religious Right propaganda, believe that the school prayer rulings marked the first time the high court addressed the issue of religion in the classroom.
In fact, McCollum, which came 14 years earlier, was the first entry in this contentious area, and it paved the way for the later decisions ending mandatory religious worship in public schools. McCollum is a milestone of religious liberty that should not be forgotten.
"It's the first Supreme Court case where barriers were erected against those who would invade the public schools and use them for proselytizing," observes Dr. Robert S. Alley, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Richmond and author of The Supreme Court on Church and State.
Many of the principals in the case are still strong advocates for church-state separation. Vashti McCollum, now 85, has returned to Champaign after several years in Arkansas. Her son, Jim, a lawyer-turned-computer programmer, makes his home in Emerson, Ark., and serves as a board member of Americans United's state chapter there. He formerly lived in Rochester, N.Y., where he helped found the AU chapter and remained active in it for many years.
The McCollum family got started on their more than half century of activism on behalf of church-state separation in 1944 when Jim, then an 8-year-old fourth grader at South Side School in Champaign, came home bearing a permission form to attend religion classes during the school day. He asked Vashti McCollum to sign the slip and designate if he were to take Protestant, Catholic or Jewish instruction.
The program, known as "released time" religious instruction, had been instituted in Champaign schools in 1940. It was based in part on an arrangement devised in Gary, Ind., in 1914 whereby children were released from public school during the day to attend religious instruction at nearby houses of worship.
In Champaign, the so-called "Gary plan" was altered in one very significant way: Instead of children leaving the building, religious teachers came into the public schools to offer instruction. Participating students were divided by faith and sent off for classes with their co-religionists. Students who did not want to take part were put in a study hall.
Vashti McCollum had concerns about the program from the beginning. "I had majored in political science at Cornell and was interested in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," she told Church & State. "When this came up, even before Jim was involved, I knew it was wrong. When Jim was urged to be included in the program, I wasn't going to be a party to that. …