McCollum Anniversary Marked In March (March 1998)

March 8 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 8 to 1 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ousting religious instruction from public schools in McCollum v. Champaign Board of Education (1948).
That case was brought by Vashti McCollum, now 85, who became a leading humanist and is an honorary officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Vashti wrote a compelling book, One Woman’s Fight, originally published by Doubleday in 1951 and recently reprinted by the Foundation, chronicling the personal story behind this lawsuit.

Her lawsuit marked the first time the U.S. Supreme Court applied the guarantees of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to state citizens, under the Fourteenth Amendment, after the Everson decision of 1947 paved the way. McCollum v. Board of Education has been the prevailing Supreme Court case against religion in public schools for half a century, invoked by justices to halt school prayer and bible reading in public schools in the sixties.

To honor Vashti’s all-important case, here are some significant passages from the decision:

Justice Black (delivering the Court opinion):
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. And it falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment (made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth) as we interpreted it in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S.Ct. 504. There we said: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force or influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’ “

. . . 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 within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.

Justice Frankfurter, joined by Justices Jackson, Rutledge, and Burton:

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. 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 state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.” Everson v. Board of Education. If nowhere else, in the relation between Church and State, “good fences make good neighbors.”

One Woman’s Fight by Vashti Cromwell McCollum (240 pages, paperback with photographs) is available for $15 postpaid from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701). Vashti and her writings are also featured in Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters, The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the 19th & 20th Centuries, edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor, available from FFRF, Inc. for $25 (hardback, 51 photographs 696 pages).

Freedom From Religion Foundation