Sixty-two years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “released time,” a program whereby public schools set aside class time for on-campus religious instruction, violated the constitutional separation between church and state.
The 1948 decision, McCollum v. Board of Education, was a landmark in application of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to church-state violations occurring in the public schools.
In 1944, Illinois fourth-grader James McCollum returned home from school and handed his mother a batch of homework assignments and a permission slip. James’ class was not embarking on a field trip, but rather, he and his classmates were asked to participate in “voluntary” religion classes that would be taught during the school day.
Initially consenting, his mother, Vashti McCollum, quickly changed her mind. After reviewing the course materials, she prohibited James from engaging in the school’s released-time program based on her belief that the classes were inappropriate for the public schools and offensive to her humanist sensibilities.
It soon became evident that the courses were not truly voluntary as school administrators pressured and ostracized the McCollums for their decision. James was forced to sit alone in the hall while his classmates were being instructed in the tenets of the Protestant faith.
Unsuccessful in her attempt to work within the school system, McCollum brought her fight into the courts. She asked the state to adopt and enforce rules and regulations prohibiting all instruction in and teaching of religious education in all public schools. She argued that the state had no business using taxpayer-funded resources to promote religion and that the released-time concept is a clear violation of the Constitution.
The high court agreed.
Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black asserted: “[A] state cannot consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments utilize its public school system to aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideals.… For the 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.”
The decision met some enmity in 1948 with the Catholic bishops and some Protestant clergy arguing that McCollum would “greatly accelerate the trend toward the secularization of our culture.” And still, today, some on the right remain hostile toward the court’s decision. The National Review discussed the case in a segment on their site called “This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism.”
It seems that the right cries “judicial activism” any time the high court renders a decision that maintains the separation of church and state regardless of legal precedent or the clear mandates of the Constitution. In 1963, the Religious Right cried activism when the Supreme Court held school-sponsored Bible reading in the public schools to be unconstitutional. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist and one of the plaintiffs, became “America’s most hated woman,” according to a 1964 edition of Life Magazine.
Even after her tragic death, agents of the right continued to blame O’Hair for removing prayer and religion from the public schools. But how short their memory; McCollum was decided fifteen years earlier. Decade after decade, the court has held that the public schools are no place for government-sanctioned religious indoctrination. McCollum set an enduring precedent.
Today, as we commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the McCollum decision, the world also celebrates International Women’s Day by recognizing the achievements of women in all spheres of public life. So, we trumpet Vashti McCollum for her bravery and dedication to the Constitution, the public schools and true religious liberty.