Behind every famous church-state case there is a face, an individual who decides to risk everything to stand up for the First Amendment.
Vashti McCollum was such a person, lending her name to a famous 1948 case McCollum v. Board of Education. This important ruling struck down sectarian religious instruction programs operating inside public schools. It paved the way for the later school prayer rulings and other decisions dealing with religion in public schools.
Vashti died Aug. 20 at age 93. With her death, the cause of church-state separation lost one of its champions.
In April of 1998, Vashti and her son Jim, a longtime Americans United activist, reflected on the McCollum ruling on its 50th anniversary. They recalled that the family took great risks bringing the case in Champaign, Ill. The reaction from some was visceral; the family received threats in the mail and had rotten fruit lobbed at their home. One night, their pet cat was abducted and found hanging from a tree.
Through it all, Vashti stood firm. She believed that public schools had no business allowing outside groups to come in and promote their religious views. When she told school officials that Jim would not participate in any school-sponsored religious education, an uproar ensued.
Unable to persuade public schools officials to reverse course, Vashti turned to the courts. Legal action was filed in Illinois courts in 1945, but the family could not get justice there. The Illinois Circuit Court and the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against the McCollums. As the case went on, community hostility escalated. Jim was assaulted in school, and Vashti, who had been working as a physical education instructor at the University of Illinois at Champaign, was abruptly terminated. Things got so bad Vashti had to send Jim to live with his grandparents in Rochester, N.Y., for a while.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and on March 8, 1948, ruled in favor of the McCollums with just one justice dissenting. Wrote Justice Hugo Black for the majority, "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."
Vashti remained active in church-state causes and other issues for the rest of her life. In 1951 she penned a book about the case titled One Woman's Fight. She served as president of the American Humanist Association from 1962 to 1965 and during her lifetime received numerous awards, including the Americans United Religious Liberty Award in 1995.
Reflecting on the case in 1998, Jim McCollum told Church & State that his mother "doesn't look for a fight, but if you mess with her, you had better be prepared for a scrape. She can be very, very defensive of her own turf."
Vashti McCollum is gone, but she leaves behind a fighting spirit that will undoubtedly inspire countless defenders of church-state separation for many years to come.