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75 years and counting: Vashti McCollum’s heroic lawsuit is endangered

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Vashti McCollum

It’s fitting that the 75th anniversary of the landmark McCollum decision by the Supreme Court shares the same day as the annual celebration of International Women’s Day.

Vashti McCollum, the heroine of this watershed case keeping religious instruction out of our public schools, was herself named for one of the only rebellious feminist heroines in the bible. As Vashti wrote in her must-read memoir of the case, One Woman’s Fight, she was proud to be named for “the first exponent of women’s rights.”

Recent court rulings and upcoming threats have made clear that the fate of women’s rights and the constitutional separation of state and church are one and the same. The same high court that last year overturned the federal right to abortion also signaled with its Bremerton ruling its hostility to the 75 years of firm precedent against religious indoctrination and worship in our public schools that began with the McCollum decision.

The McCollum v. Board of Education case started when Vashti’s eldest and normally stoic son Jim came home in tears, vowing never to go to school again on the day they had religious instruction. He’d been put in the hall by himself, usually reserved for punishment, and been teased by other students. The elementary school in Champaign, Ill., you see, had commenced classes in religious instruction during the school day, sponsored by the Council of Religious Education. The classes had been a continual thorn in Jim’s side. The classes supposedly were noncompulsory, but Jim was the only student not attending. His parents knew such instruction in our public schools was wrong.

Vashti made an appointment with the superintendent, telling him, “There should be no Jews, no Catholics, no Protestants in public schools. They’re all American children.” When he argued that religious training was necessary to combat juvenile delinquency (sound familiar?), she produced studies showing no correlation between religion and morality.

“Sectarian religion isn’t what makes for good citizens,” Vashti told him. “Our standards of morality and good citizenship are rooted in our way of life, and it is a way of life that was designed to cut through sectarian difference.”

When reasoning didn’t work, Vashti went to court. She lost at the first level. She lost at the second level. The family became infamous. Their pagan pussycat disappeared. She lost her job teaching folk dancing at the university. Jim and his younger brothers Dannel and Erroll were pariahs, to the point where the family finally shipped Jim off to live with his grandparents.

Vashti never thought of quitting, and on March 8, 1948, she won a historic 8-1 ruling in her favor, written by Justice Hugo Black, who ruled that “the First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state which must be kept high and impregnable.”

In the more famous concurrence, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: Separation means separation, not something less. … The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny. 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.

We renew our conviction that “we have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.”

The public school is indeed a symbol of our democracy, so it’s no coincidence that public schools are under attack at the same time as our secular democracy.

This is a day to commemorate that McCollum spirit. A great Peabody Award-winning documentary has been made about this case, bringing it to life. We at FFRF have had the privilege of knowing Vashti McCollum and her family, including Jim, a retired attorney and professor, who is a Lifetime Member and received FFRF’s Champion of the First Amendment award in 2008, for which he gave a lovely acceptance speech. Dannel, who actually became mayor of Champaign for several years, also wrote a book, The Lord Was Not on Trial, about the case. We have tried to preserve the legacy of the case, featuring Vashti and Jim in an early FFRF film, “Champions of the First Amendment,” as well as more recently interviewing both Jim and Dan on FFRF’s TV show, “Freethought Matters.”

And this is a day to also commemorate the principle of separation between religion and government that Vashti fought so hard to protect, which in turn protects women’s rights and all individual liberties. On this anniversary, let’s resolve individually and collectively to do our part to preserve a besieged principle that undergirds our democracy and promotes our common destiny.

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