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Vashti's victory: how a valiant Illinois woman and her family won the first Supreme Court verdict on religion and public schools fifty years ago.

Light-hearted pranks are common on Halloween, but in 1945 the annual spooky celebration took a sinister turn in Champaign, Ill., at the home of Vashti and John McCollum and their three sons.

Answering a knock at the door, Vashti McCollum was pelted with a barrage of rotten tomatoes and garbage. Voices from the dark screamed "atheist" at her. It took an appearance by a police squad car to disperse the culprits, but later some returned and tried to kick in the door.

What had the McCollum family done to provoke such hostility? Vashti McCollum, acting on behalf of her son James, had dared to speak out against a religious instruction program operating in the local public school and had filed suit to block it. That was enough to raise the ire of some in the east central Illinois community.

McCollum's complaint eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where in an 8-1 action, the justices struck down the in-school religious practices in question. The Supreme Court's verdict was handed down March 8, 1948, making this year the 50th anniversary of the McCollum v. Board of Education case.

The McCollum decision is sometimes overshadowed by the more controversial high court rulings against school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and '63. Many Americans especially those who listen to Religious Right propaganda, believe that the school prayer rulings marked the first time the high court addressed the issue of religion in the classroom.

In fact, McCollum, which came 14 years earlier, was the first entry in this contentious area, and it paved the way for the later decisions ending mandatory religious worship in public schools. McCollum is a milestone of religious liberty that should not be forgotten.

"It's the first Supreme Court case where barriers were erected against those who would invade the public schools and use them for proselytizing," observes Dr. Robert S. Alley, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Richmond and author of The Supreme Court on Church and State.

Many of the principals in the case are still strong advocates for church-state separation. Vashti McCollum, now 85, has returned to Champaign after several years in Arkansas. Her son, Jim, a lawyer-turned-computer programmer, makes his home in Emerson, Ark., and serves as a board member of Americans United's state chapter there. He formerly lived in Rochester, N.Y., where he helped found the AU chapter and remained active in it for many years.

The McCollum family got started on their more than half century of activism on behalf of church-state separation in 1944 when Jim, then an 8-year-old fourth grader at South Side School in Champaign, came home bearing a permission form to attend religion classes during the school day. He asked Vashti McCollum to sign the slip and designate if he were to take Protestant, Catholic or Jewish instruction.

The program, known as "released time" religious instruction, had been instituted in Champaign schools in 1940. It was based in part on an arrangement devised in Gary, Ind., in 1914 whereby children were released from public school during the day to attend religious instruction at nearby houses of worship.

In Champaign, the so-called "Gary plan" was altered in one very significant way: Instead of children leaving the building, religious teachers came into the public schools to offer instruction. Participating students were divided by faith and sent off for classes with their co-religionists. Students who did not want to take part were put in a study hall.

Vashti McCollum had concerns about the program from the beginning. "I had majored in political science at Cornell and was interested in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," she told Church & State. "When this came up, even before Jim was involved, I knew it was wrong. When Jim was urged to be included in the program, I wasn't going to be a party to that. The pressure became so great I had to do something."

At first, Vashti reluctantly agreed to let Jim take the Protestant version of the course. She had been led to believe it would focus mostly on ethics and morals. But in looking over the materials, she saw that it was clearly slanted toward fundamentalist-style Christianity. When Jim switched to another public school, Howard Elementary, to begin fifth grade the following fall, Vashti decided he could no longer participate.

Jim was the only student in his class not enrolled in the religious classes. One of his teachers pressured Vashti to change her mind, arguing that it would help Jim fit in and adjust.

In her book, One Woman's Fight, first published in 1951, Vashti remembers what she said in reply. "`You know,'" I answered, 'that I'd do anything to help my boy get along, but I will not let him take something we feel is unconstitutional and undemocratic. A few pressure groups have taken advantage of the schools to further their own aims. It isn't that I feel the courses would hurt him, but if we let him go, we'd be counted among the parents in support of that program, and we are not hypocrites."'

Vashti's refusal set the stage for a conflict that wasn't long in coming. In February of 1945 Vashti became enraged when she learned that school personnel had made Jim sit alone in a hallway during religious instruction. She met with school officials but got no satisfaction.

A local Unitarian minister, Phil Schug, put her in touch with the Chicago Action Council, a group of progressive business leaders who agreed to provide an attorney and pay legal bills. By that summer, the case had been filed in an Illinois state court.

Fifty years later, Jim McCollum remembers his mother as someone never reluctant to stand up for her rights. "She doesn't look for a fight, but if you mess with her, you had better be prepared for a scrape," he said. "She can be very, very defensive of her own turf."

Noting that his mom attended law school and once planned to be a lawyer, McCollum added, "She would have been a hell of an attorney."

The case took more than three years to move through the courts. The first two decisions went against the McCollums. On Jan. 27, 1946, the Illinois Circuit Court issued an opinion essentially dismissing the case, holding that the religion classes were similar to other "extracurricular" activities such as art and music. The three-judge panel went so far as to declare that the instruction was "not sectarian," even though the classes were divided along Catholic, Protestant and Jewish lines.

Asked by a reporter outside the courthouse if she was disappointed, Vashti McCollum said simply, "Disappointed? I wouldn't have brought this case if I hadn't wanted to win."

The family was due to be disappointed again when the Illinois Supreme Court took up the controversy in November of 1946. Two months after the hearing, the justices issued an opinion sustaining the lower court. The McCollum family's attorneys filed an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the case dragged on, the family suffered a torrent of abusive mail, hateful phone calls and other forms of harassment. Vashti remembers Jim coming home with tom clothes and a bloody nose on more than one occasion. In addition, Vashti, who had been working as an adjunct professor of physical education at the University of Illinois in Champaign, was abruptly terminated. John McCollum, a professor of horticulture at the same school, was protected by tenure, but Jim McCollum notes that it took his father an unusually long time -- 15 years -- to win a full professorship.

But there were bright moments too. People from all over America wrote to the McCollums to express their support. Many of the letters were from adults who remembered religion imposed upon them during their public school years and were glad to see the issue being challenged in court.

"I was an early victim of the Gary school-church set-up," one woman wrote. "I was almost expelled from grammar school because I refused to attend religious classes, shocked my teachers and fellow students but weathered the storm."

By the time the case reached the highest court in the land, Jim McCollum was 11 years old. Today he recalls that despite his youth, he had a good understanding of what was at stake and realized the implications could go way beyond Champaign.

"I really didn't mind losing at the Illinois Supreme Court," he recalls. "My feeling was let it go to the U.S. Supreme Court. If we win, it would apply nationwide."

By this time the harassment had gotten so bad that Vashti and John sent Jim to Rochester, N.Y., to live with his grandparents. He attend a private school there for a year and a half before returning to Champaign for ninth grade in a public high school.

On June 2, 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear another appeal of the McCollum case. Earlier that year the high court had handed down a key ruling on the separation of church and state in the landmark Everson v. Board of Education case. Although a narrow majority of the justices approved publicly paid parochial school busing, they went on to state forcefully that the First Amendment requires "a wall of separation between church and state" that "must be kept high and impregnable."

Lawyers for the McCollum family and the school district combed the Everson decision, looking for clues as to how the high court might rule in the released-time controversy.

The McCollum case was argued on Dec. 8, 1947, with attorney Walter Dodd representing the McCollums. Three months later the ruling came down, and it wasn't even close. By an 8-1 margin, the Supreme Court invalidated the Champaign program.

The lead opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, is just 10 paragraphs long. In it, Black cited the "wall of separation" language from Everson and said that school officials in Champaign had failed to respect that constitutional barrier.

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 the use of the State's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote eloquently about the need for the separation principle in public education. "The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny," he insisted. "in no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools, to avoid confusing, not to say fusing, what the Constitution sought to keep strictly apart. `The great American principle of eternal separation' -- Elihu Root's phrase bears repetition -- is one of the vital reliances of our Constitutional system for assuring unities among our people stronger than our diversities. It is the Court's duty to enforce this principle in its full integrity."

Alley, the constitutional scholar, says McCollum is the "signature case of the Roosevelt Court." He adds, "McCollum is a centerpiece for those who say, 'You can't teach religion in the public school.' Religious groups can't come in and take over for their own purposes. The case is well deserving of celebration."

The controversy over released time did not end with the high court's ruling, however. Four years later a new dispute from New York reached the high court. Unlike the Champaign plan, New York City's released-time program took place off campus. Ruling 6-3, the high court upheld it in 1952's Zorach v. Clauson.

Despite the Zorach ruling, released time never really took off as a mass movement in the United States. Today there are pockets of the country where the concept is popular, and occasional disputes still arise. But for the time being, this appears to be a relatively quiet area of church-state law. Advocates of church-state separation have their hands full coping with more direct assaults on the religious neutrality of public schools -- efforts to force mandatory prayer back into public schools, teaching creationism in science classes, religiously based censorship attempts and even a drive to erase the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment.

In Champaign, 50 years after her case made headlines, Vashti McCollum worries that too many Americans don't appreciate the wisdom of church-state separation, and she finds the Religious Right's assaults on the principle dumbfounding.

"People get swept away with religion, and they don't realize what they are jeopardizing," she said. "I'm amazed that in this country we have more churches, more people support them and church attendance is up. The support is there. I don't know what they have to complain about. No other place does as well as the United States, where people support their churches."

Despite her advanced years and increasingly fragile health, McCollum tries to keep up with recent developments in church-state law and even travels a bit. Last year she visited the Galapagos Islands, where, she proudly notes, "I climbed a volcano." In Champaign she lives near her son Dannel, who is currently serving his third term as mayor of the city, now a thriving university town of 67,000. (A third McCollum son, Errol, lives in Moline, Ill., and is a retired mechanical engineer.)

For the past 15 years Dannel McCollum has been working as time permits on a book about his family's case, which is due out by the end of the year. Titled The Lord Was Not On Trial, it takes its name from an incident that occurred as the trial began in Illinois circuit court.

A young man walked up to Champaign School Superintendent Eugene Mellon and announced that he had come to testify "for the Lord." Mellon sent him over to John Franklin, the school board attorney. When the man repeated his statement, Franklin slowly replied, "The Lord, sir, is not on trial here today."

Reflecting on those years, Dannel says, "Picture yourself as an 8-year-old, and your mother takes you aside and says, 'Now, son, you realize that everyone in town now knows who we are. Everything you do, someone will notice. If you do something wrong or cause shame to your family, the whole town will know about it.' I remember her telling me we were in a fishbowl. It was good practice for me, because now as mayor I'm still in the fishbowl."

Dannel notes that when he launched his political career, some of his opponents tried to use his family's participation in the case against him, but the move fell flat. "This community has grown, expanded and become more cosmopolitan," he said. "Many people have come to see the good of the decision."

Back in southern Arkansas, Jim McCollum warns Americans not to take their religious freedoms for granted. His involvement in the case as a boy sparked an interest in church-state issues and a dedication to the separation principle that has not wavered over five decades.

"The battle is so necessary," he said. "If we lose our religious liberty in this country, there are a lot of other freedoms that are going to follow."
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Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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