Awesome Anniversary: Celebrating 65 Years Of The McCollum Ruling

Behind every church-state case there stands a family of brave plaintiffs.

Sixty-five years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of its most important church-state decisions.

The 8-1 ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education ended a practice in the Champaign, Ill., public schools of allowing ministers to come onto the campus during the day to offer sectarian instruction.

The decision is important because it marked the first time the high court ruled that the public schools could not be in the business of promoting religion to students. It paved the way for the 1962 and ’63 rulings striking down official school prayer and Bible reading.

Writing for the majority in McCollum, Justice Hugo Black scored “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.”

Observed Black, “Here not only are the State's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the State's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.”

Behind every church-state case there stands a family of brave plaintiffs. In this case, that family was the McCollums. Led by the strong-willed Vashti McCollum, the family knew taking on this case would not be easy. And it wasn’t.

As soon as Vashti took a good look at the materials to be taught in the classes, she knew she could not let her son Jim take part. To Vashti, it was an easy call: Public schools should serve young people of all faiths and philosophies and shouldn’t be in the business of promoting religion.

Jim McCollum, a fifth grader at the time, was singled out because he was the only student not taking the religious courses. He was left to sit alone in a tiny room. On occasion he and his brother Dannel were bullied by other students. Teachers continually pressured Vashti to change her mind. Things got so bad that Vashti and her husband John sent Jim to live with relatives in New York for a while.

The family received harassing phone calls and threatening mail. One hateful (and ungrammatical) message read, “There is no room for you nor yours here. God damn you sons and daughters of bitches. Our public schools, courts, governments belong to the abused tax paying parents. We are Ruled By Our God. We Live By Him, work, eat, sleep, and die For Him! If you think you can boss us around What fun We are going to have.”

On Halloween of 1945, a gang actually broke into the McCollums’ house and threw rotten fruit and vegetables at Vashti. The family cat was also founded hanging from a tree.

There was other retaliation: Vashti, who had been working as a physical education instructor at the University of Illinois at Champaign, was abruptly terminated. John McCollum, who also worked as an instructor at the university, saw his career stall.

The McCollums litigated the case in state court and lost in two courts there. The matter then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court rulings. The decision was one of the high court’s first opportunities to expound on church-state separation as it applied to public schools, and it promptly became an important landmark case.

Two years ago, Jay Rosenstein, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, produced a documentary on the McCollum case. Titled “The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today,” the award-winning documentary was aired on many PBS stations. (As it so happens, you can watch it online for free through March 20 at Bill Moyers’ site.)

Vashti died in 2006 at the age of 93. She had remained active in church-state causes all of her life. Jim McCollum went on to law school and helped form Americans United chapters in New York and Arkansas. He remains involved in the fight to maintain church-state separation. Dan McCollum wrote a book about his experiences titled The Lord Was Not On Trial and entered politics, serving as mayor of Champaign from 1987-99.

The McCollum family’s brave stand helped pave the way for public schools that are open to young people of all faiths and none. Their activism has ensured that our public schools remain focused on secular education, not religious indoctrination.

Take a minute to reflect on their important victory today.