October 2006 Church & State | Editorial

Friends Of Freedom

The cause of church-state separation lost two champions recently.

On Aug. 14, Robert S. Alley died in Richmond, Va. Alley, a humanities professor emeritus at the University of Richmond, was a lifelong advocate of religious liberty and a staunch supporter of Americans United.

Alley, 74, authored a number of books on church-state separation and could always be relied on to debunk the Religious Right’s pseudo-history. He was an expert on the writings of James Madison and edited the authoritative James Madison on Religious Liberty.

For many years Alley shared his wisdom with students at Americans United events. He served on the AU Board of Trustees from 1994 until 2003 and helped launch AU’s Central Virginia Chapter.

Bob knew from personal experience why state-mandated religion is wrong. When Bob was a child, his father, a Baptist minister in the old separationist tradition, refused on principle to let him take part in school-sponsored Christian activity. Bob ended up sitting outside the room with a Jewish classmate.

Years later, in his Madison book, Bob explained why support for religious liberty is so important. “One should not em­brace religious freedom…merely because two prominent Virginians did so two centuries ago,” he wrote. “Rather we develop respect for those individuals and their associates because they espoused principles considered essential to true democracy. This is no game in which each side seeks to uncover old quotes favorable to their cause; it is a confrontation over basic presuppositions, a conflict between democracy and theocracy, both of which have deep roots in our past….”

Bob is survived by his wife Norma and two sons Bob and John. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Days after Bob’s death, Vashti Mc­Collum, the lead plaintiff in a crucial church-state case from 1948, died at age 93.

On behalf of her son Jim, Vashti challenged sectarian religious instruction inside Illinois public schools. Her McCollum v. Board of Education victory paved the way for the later school prayer rulings and other decisions dealing with religion in public schools.

In the Supreme Court opinion, Justice Hugo Black insisted that “[T]he 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.”

The family was vilified for its achievement, but Vashti stood firm. She remained active in defense of church-state separation all of her life and received many well-deserved rewards for her activism. She also penned a book, One Woman’s Fight, about her case. Inspired by her example, Jim McCollum is an AU activist in Arkansas today.

Vashti McCollum and Bob Alley are gone, but they leave legacies that will inspire future generations. We can best honor them by stepping into the gap their passing leaves in the frontlines of the battle for church-state separation.