One Woman’s Fight

How An Illinois Mom Took A Stand Against Coercive Religion In Public Schools – And Made Church-State History

By Jeremy Leaming

In the fall of 1943, Vashti McCollum was working to juggle college, a marriage and three young boys’ lives. The Champaign, Ill., mom was taken aback one day when her oldest son, Jim, asked her to sign a permission slip for him to attend religious instruction at his public elementary school.

The flyer describing the religious courses stated that students would be broken up into separate sections for Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Vashti, who had taken political science and law courses in college, quickly sensed the inappropriateness of such classes.

As she recalled in her book, One Woman’s Fight, Vashti told Jim, “I’m sorry, but we don’t approve of this being taught in the schools. I can’t sign it.”

Although Vashti and her husband John were certain they opposed religious teaching in public schools, they were less likely to have known that their objection would lead to a three-year court battle that would end in a key U.S. Supreme Court decision, a landmark ruling that upheld separation of church and state and set public schools on the road to religious neutrality.

Many Americans have probably heard of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the school prayer and Bible-reading cases of the early 1960s. But long before those disputes made it to the Supreme Court, the justices issued a ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education that began to set church-state parameters in public schools. And this year marks the 60th anniversary of that decision.

On March 8, 1948, the high court in McCollum found that the Champaign public schools could not constitutionally allow religious instructors to come onto school grounds during the school day and teach religion courses. It was the first time the high court ruled that the public schools could not be in the business of pushing religion on their students.

Justice Hugo Black, writing for the 8-1majority, found that the set-up in the Champaign schools – where a local religious council received permission from public school officials to send teachers into the schools to offer Protestant, Catholic or Jewish lessons – was a stark affront to the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state.

The evidence showed “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,” wrote Black. “Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religious classes. This is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith,” Black wrote.

Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a concurring opinion in McCollum, called the public schools “a symbol of our secular unity” that “must keep scrupulously free from entanglement in the strife of sects.”

McCollum preceded the rulings in the prayer and Bible-reading cases by more than a dozen years. It was not until 1962 that the justices in Engel v. Vitale struck down a New York law mandating prayer, and it was a 1963 decision in Abington v. Schempp when school-sponsored prayer and Bible-reading in Pennsylvania and Maryland were ruled unconstitutional. (See Sixty Years Of Controversy,” page 12.)

The McCollum decision set the stage for those better-known rulings and helped shape the high court’s view that the Constitution forbids the nation’s public schools to advance religious doctrines and worship.

The justices in McCollum turned away Illinois officials’ argument that the First Amendment should not be applicable to the states. They also rejected claims that the First Amendment was meant to only bar government preference of one religion over another and not government financing of religious activities.

Black and others in the majority were adamant.

“[T]he First Amendment rests,” Black observed, “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.”

Legal experts see McCollum as ground-breaking.

Robert O’Neil, a University of Virginia emeritus law professor and director of the university’s Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, told Church & State that the decision was the “first time any governmental practice had been invalidated on Establishment Clause grounds.”

 Said O’Neil, “McCollum was at the time, and remains, an extremely important decision.”

Vashti McCollum, her husband John and three boys, Jim, Dannel and Errol, made a courageous stand against public school promotion of religion. The family’s action, however, brought several years of intense attention from reporters and citizens nationwide.

Vashti, who was named after the banished wife of King Ahasuerus in the Old Testament story of Esther, wrote that she saw her action as a modest endeavor that unfolded on a very public stage.

In her 1951 book, McCollum described herself as a “small-town housewife who didn’t want her son to spend his school hours reading Bible stories.”

Although the McCollums allowed Jim to attend the “released-time” religious instruction during his final months as a fourth grader, they refused to let him take any more of the classes during his fifth-grade year.

Jim, who is now a computer programming specialist at Southern Arkansas University and an activist with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says that after attending a few of the religious instruction sessions, he realized the classes were hardly worth his time.

McCollum told Church & State that he remembers thinking that the curriculum was “outrageously silly.” The classes, he said, “appeared to be designed for kindergartners, the content was well below the fourth-grade level.

“It’s interesting that, at the time, our family did not discuss religion around the house; it was not germane,” he said. “But that changed when we ran into this religious education program.”

Jim noted that both his father and grandfather were not members of an organized religion. They weren’t hostile to religion, but they had settled beliefs, he said.

“By the time my dad left high school,” Jim said, “he had all the religion he could handle.”

Vashti’s father, Arthur G. Cromwell, had read numerous versions of the Bible, but was more inclined to the writings of Voltaire and Robert Ingersoll. Cromwell was also president of the Rochester, N.Y., Society of Free Thinkers.

One of her father’s works, a pamphlet titled Rationalism vs. Religious Education in the Public Schools, wound up attracting media attention, after it was introduced at trial. Vashti wrote that the Illinois officials and some media spent lots of time deriding her family as anti-religious.

But when Jim did not participate in the religious classes at South Side Elementary, he quickly suffered the consequences of being an outsider. Vashti wrote that her son, then in the fifth grade, was the only student not taking a religious course. The classes were created by the Champaign Council on Religious Education and taught by Protestant teachers, Catholic priests and ostensibly a Jewish rabbi. The Supreme Court noted in its decision, however, that several years had gone by with no Jewish instruction given.

Beyond being relegated to sit alone in a tiny room adjacent to the teachers’ restrooms, Jim was also taunted, and on occasions beaten up, by his peers. One of Jim’s teachers confronted Vashti about the boy’s absence and urged her to allow him to take the course.

The pressure failed, however. Vashti told the teacher that she could not allow Jim to participate in a set-up that she saw as clearly unconstitutional.

Jim’s brother, Dannel, also holds vivid memories of the years spent fighting the religious instruction program. Dannel, who is preparing to publish a book on the McCollum case, called The Lord Was Not On Trial, told Church & State that “every time the case made news, each time the case moved ahead, there was a major escalation in the nasty mail we received.”

Dannel, like Jim, said that as inconvenient as the publicity over the case was, he never doubted his parents’ wisdom in bringing the lawsuit.

“I think we always had a feeling from start to finish that this was absolutely the right thing to do,” he said.

Time does heal some wounds. In 1987, Dannel was elected mayor of Champaign. He served until 1999, after comfortably winning two re-election campaigns.

Describing her primary reason for challenging the religious instruction program, Vashti wrote, “My main objection was on constitutional grounds, and my action was one I could have brought with equally firm convictions had I been a member of any of the 250-odd sects flourishing in this country.”

Before a lawsuit was ever lodged against the Champaign public schools, Vashti reached out to public school officials to urge them to drop the program.

In a meeting with then-Champaign schools superintendent, Dr. E.H. Mellon, she said, “I simply do not believe it’s the function of the public school to bring children to the church. Public schools shouldn’t be recruiting centers for sectarian interests.”

Mellon’s answers were flippant and unsatisfactory, and McCollum’s actions were decisive. Since it was evident that the school officials were intent on keeping the religious instruction, she concluded that it was time to take legal action.

Vashti contacted a local Unitarian minister who had publicly argued against an Illinois bill that would mandate religious instruction in all the state’s public schools. The Rev. Philip Schug put McCollum in touch with the Chicago Action Council.

That organization and the Chicago Civil Liberties Union retained an attorney for McCollum, and the legal action commenced in June 1945. Schug, Vashti wrote, continued to be intimately involved in the case, making public arguments in Champaign for the removal of the religious courses.

The McCollums’ lawsuit was first heard in the Sixth Illinois Circuit Court. Both Vashti and Jim testified before a courtroom packed with reporters and local onlookers.

Jim took the stand toward the end of the trial, and Vashti, although concerned about how Jim would be treated in the media, was proud of his participation.

In her book, Vashti says the state’s attorney asked Jim if he had been coached by his mother on what answers to provide the court. He responded that she had.

“She told me to tell the truth,” he told the attorney.

McCollum lost before two Illinois courts. The circuit court found that the religious education courses in Champaign did not violate of the First Amendment or the Illinois Constitution’s strict separation of church and state. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

During the litigation, the McCollums endured a great deal of animosity from the community as well as others nationwide. In her book, Vashti detailed threatening phone calls, printed some of the hateful letters and described a terrifying incident on Halloween in 1945 when a group of hoodlums broke into the McCollums’ home and pelted Vashti with rotten tomatoes and cabbage.

Vashti received lots of letters condemning her for allegedly trying to run Christianity out of the public schools and attacking her as a communist or a crazed atheist.

One angry missive blared, “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.”

Jim McCollum told Church & State that he remembers that in one grisly incident, “a family cat was lynched.”

“I viewed it personally as something we had to bear,” he said. “It was something I was not fearful of, though.”

The family did not buckle under the harassment. After losing at the trial level, the McCollums obtained a new attorney, Walter Dodd, a former Yale constitutional law professor, and continued to pursue the case.

As the lawsuit proceeded, however, Jim continued to suffer harassment, some of which amounted to physical harm. In spring of 1947, Vashti and John sent Jim to Rochester, N.Y., to live with his grandparents and attend a private school. That fall, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

When the justices issued their ruling, Jim was still living in Rochester.

“At the time, I was essentially exiled from Champaign,” he said. “It got too hostile in Champaign. I was in eighth grade when I remember seeing a headline in the newspaper about the victory.

“I was cognizant of its importance,” he recalls. “This was not something that just swirled around us. In fact, I remember telling my mom that I hoped we would lose at the state courts and that it would go to the Supreme Court so that a ruling would apply across the land, not just Champaign.”

The McCollums remained active in the struggle for religious liberty. After completing graduate study at the University of Illinois, Vashti addressed the 1952 Americans United National Conference on religiously based movie censorship, and she later was active in Humanist organizations. She died Aug. 20, 2006, at age 93.

Jim, who graduated from the University of Illinois law school, has remained a staunch advocate of the First Amendment principle of the separation of church and state. He helped launch an Americans United chapter in Rochester when he was practicing law, and he founded the Arkansas Americans United chapter when he retired from practicing law and returned to live in a house that has been occupied by the McCollums for many decades.

Today, McCollum enjoys talking with students nationwide regarding the McCollum case.

The McCollum family played a major role in ensuring that American public schools welcome students of all faiths and none. The 1948 ruling they brought about has been applied over and over again as precedent to stop inappropriate religious activities in the public schools.

“The public schools are for everybody, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof,” says Jim McCollum. “Public school should not be a place where religion is promulgated.”