By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation
Not one workday ever goes by that we at the Freedom From Religion Foundation do not give thanks — to the McCollum family for the landmark ruling they won. We must pause this Friday, March 8, to give special thanks to the achievement of Vashti McCollum and her family. Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in McCollum v. Board of Education, a decision that endures and protects schoolchildren and personal conscience throughout the land.
FFRF daily invokes the McCollum precedent in our legal letters of complaint over state/church violations in public schools. McCollum, issued in 1948, is the bedrock upon which rests all other Supreme Court rulings against religious encroachments and devotions in public schools. (We also more than pleased to invoke the McCollum precedent in Doe v. Porter, FFRF’s 2004 victory in the 6th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nixing devotional instruction taught by bible students in Dayton, Tenn.)
I’m writing this tribute en route to a celebration of that decision in the city of origin, Champaign, Ill., where Vashti brought her brave and unpopular challenge. As professor George Axtelle wrote about Vashti: “Very few persons would have been willing to stand up, as she did, not only to the authorities but also to the hostility of the whole community. Here, indeed, is a story of rare courage.”
The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, under the leadership of professor Jay Rosenstein, today will be airing Jay’s Peabody Award-winning documentary about the landmark case, “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today.” A famous remark at the trial also formed the title for Dannel McCollum’s book about his mother’s case as well, called The Lord Was Not on Trial. Jay was kind enough to invite me as a representative of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to be on the post-screening panel.
To ready myself for this panel, I’ve just reread Vashti’s memoir One Woman’s Fight and the McCollum decision. In the face of bitter defeat in two lower courts, social shunning, hate mail, reprisal against herself, her family and her children, Vashti did not give up. She was rewarded with a historic decision, 8-1, in her favor.
Justice Hugo Black wrote the main opinion, concluding: “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 use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.”
Four justices, represented by Justice Felix Frankfurter, issued a strong concurrence. Frankfurter wrote, “Separation means separation, not something less. Jefferson’s metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,’ not of a fine line easily overstepped. 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.”
One of the many great privileges of being an FFRF co-founder has been meeting and working with so many memorable champions of the First Amendment. In 1993, FFRF received permission to reprint Vashti’s remarkable, timely and engaging book, first published in 1951 (available at ffrf.org/shop).
In the foreword by FFRF President Anne Nicol Gaylor, Anne noted: “We are all of us indebted to Vashti for her activism in defense of a basic constitutional principle. And we are so please to know her — an intrepid and charming woman of great integrity.” It was a privilege to meet Vashti and her husband, John (“Pappy”), and their sons Jim and Dannel, who remain committed to championing the Establishment Clause. Pappy died before Vashti, who died in 2006 at age 93. Vashti, Jim and Dan were interviewed for FFRF’s 1989 film “Champions of the First Amendment.” Rosenstein’s documentary captures their words, the drama and the scope of this decision for posterity, and is a poignant lesson for today.
While we take a moment to savor this strong ruling, it must be noted that the Supreme Court has egregiously deviated from the principles in McCollum in its 2001 Good News Club v. Milford Central School District decision. What the court stopped during the school day, it now blesses as soon as the bell rings at the end of the school day.
A major child evangelism industry is permitted to set up shop in our public schools and use their machinery, truancy laws and classrooms to conduct child evangelism clubs of indoctrination. The Good News Club decision was bad news that cannot be squared with Justice Black’s analysis of what is impermissible in McCollum, nor can the Supreme Court’s green light on school voucher funding.
Nothing could inspire more state/church activism than reading Vashti’s One Woman’s Fight. Vashti won the big one. Now it’s up to the rest of us to keep mopping up!
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants you to help give perspective to a Texas school district over allowing religious "run-through" banners displayed by school cheerleaders on the field during school football games. The Kountze ISD Board of Trustees has asked for public input.
FFRF maintains that banners on the football field are perceived as official messages of the school and as such, may not endorse Christianity. FFRF contacted the District in the fall and requested that the religious banners no longer be used. In September of 2012 the District's former superintendent agreed and disallowed religious messages on the run-through banners. Liberty Institute, on behalf of school cheerleaders, filed suit against the district. A Texas court granted a temporary injunction, which allows the religious banners until trial in June.
The cheerleaders and their advocates have claimed the messages painted on the banners are "inspirational." But, the messages are insulting and exclude members of the community who are non-Christians, non-religious, or Christians who do not subscribe to divisive biblical messages being promoted by the school at a football game.
"If God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 8:31," read one of the banners displayed by cheerleaders in school uniforms. Others have said:
But thanks be to God, which gives us Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 15:57
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Phil. 3:14
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:14.
The banners marginalize community members who are not in agreement with the proselytizing messages. FFRF disputes Liberty Institute's position that the banners are merely private speech. Because the banners are school-sponsored speech they must follow the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
The Kountze Independent School District is receiving comments on the religious banners through Friday. FFRF encourages you to speak out and let the District know that the divisive banners are unwelcoming and that the Board should take action to prevent the District's display of biblical banners.
Interim Superintendent Reese Briggs
Click on the link below to send him an email:
Kountze Independent School District
PO Box 460
Kountze, Texas 77625
Phone: (409) 246-3352
Fax: (409) 246-3217
Contact the local media
Email a letter to the editor of the area's newspaper, The Beaumont Enterprise:
One sentence is sufficient. Your own words are best. But you may wish to copy this paragraph in your correspondence:
I support Kountze ISD's original decision to stop the display of bible verse banners on the football field.
Cheerleaders and other representatives of the school should not misuse the privilege the school confers on them to promote Christianity.
The banners confer an appearance of official school endorsement, and marginalize members of the community who do not conform to the religious beliefs espoused in the messages. Please put an end to school-sponsored religious banners and show respect for the Establishment Clause and the rights of conscience of all members of our pluralistic society.
Thank you. (Sign name)
First they did a poll, then they did a head count.
Many have suspected it, but now there's proof: Americans are not as religious as the polls report.
Only half of those who say they regularly attend church actually do!
According to the traditional polls, 40% of the United States population reports attending church regularly. This Þgure has held remarkably constant for decades. Responding to a 1992 Gallup poll asking, "Did you, yourself, happen to attend church or synagogue in the last seven days?" 42% of adult Americans said "Yes."
But a new study questions this prevailing wisdom. "What The Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look At U.S. Church Attendance" was published in the December 1993 American Sociological Review, casting serious doubt on the supposedly high rate of regular church attendance. The authors are C. Kirk Hadaway (United Church Board for Homeland Ministries and Adjunct Faculty at Hartford Seminary), Penny Long Marler (Assistant Professor of Religion at Samford University), and Mark Chaves (Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame).
"In the sociological literature," the three scholars write, "this high participation rate [40%] is prominently and widely cited to bolster attacks against the secularization hypothesis." They give widespread examples of this "social fact" in sociology texts, history texts, and journalism.
But many observers have doubted this characterization of high American religiosity--it doesn't seem to square with reality. This is especially true among many "old-line" Protestant denominations that have experienced membership losses and slowing growth rates the past few decades.
"Consistently high levels of church attendance and a growing U.S. population suggest that most major denominations should be thriving and growing," the authors point out, "[y]et most are not. Claims that losses in old-line denominations are more than offset by gains in evangelical denominations . . . do not sufÞce. In addition to the fact that evangelical gains simply are not numerically large enough, Americans in declining denominations still claim high levels of membership and attendance."
Church members appear to be "over-reporting" (to phrase it politely) their attendance. It has long been known that people tend to make themselves look better than they are in surveys. Overreporting (or underreporting) is often due to "social desirability" factors. Many people, for example, tell pollsters that they vote regularly, although their names are absent from voting records. Many youths underreport deviant behavior, such as substance abuse.
Suspecting that poll respondents "substantially overstate actual church attendance," Hadaway, Marler, and Chaves hit upon a novel idea. First they did a poll, then they did a head count.
Then they compared the polls to the pews. Using a variety of data sources and strategies, they estimated count-based church rates among Protestants and Catholics in a rural Ohio county (Ashtabula) and among Catholics in 18 dioceses nationwide.
To be as accurate as possible, the authors located every single church in the county, driving the length of every road. They found 172 Christian churches, 44 more than the 128 listed for Ashtabula County in Churches and Church Membership in the United States 1990. Some congregations were counted physically, and average attendance counts were received from other churches through denominational yearbooks, telephone interviews, and letters. (It is not to be expected that churches would underreport their attendance.)
"The results are dramatic," they write. Church attendance rates "are approximately one-half the generally accepted levels."
Although 35.8% of Protestants said they regularly attend church, only 19.6% showed up. The 35.8% survey result is consistent with 1991 statewide and 1992 Cincinnati polls yielding 36%.
Only 25% of Catholics were counted in church, compared to 51% reported. The 51% survey result is similar to polls in New York (44.8%), Chicago (48.5%) and Cincinnati (59.3%).
One of the harshest attacks on this new study came from Catholic priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley, who called it "a sloppy piece of work," according to Christian Century. But Gerald Marwell, the review editor who decided to publish the study, said he was not surprised by Greeley's reaction: "To some extent he [Greeley] was one of the people who is argued against in the research." Marwell pointed out that the ASR study was reviewed before publication by a panel of noted sociologists.
"To generalize from a county in Ohio to all of Protestant America is irresponsible," said Greeley. Marwell responded that the burden of proof is on the critics to demonstrate how the county in this study is out of line with the rest of the nation.
Jay Demerath, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, responded to the survey's conclusion that Americans have been inßating church attendance. He said: "I think the study needs to be taken very seriously indeed. . . . Gallup and other pollsters are aware of this. It's kind of a dirty little secret."
The implications are obvious. If church attendance reports are unreliable, what about other "facts" of American religiosity? What about belief in God?