The Right to Go to Hell! Jim McCollum

Jim McCollum–Champion of the First Amendment

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Jim McCollum is a longtime member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation born into a family of freethinkers and activists. His granddad, Arthur Cromwell, was the town atheist in Rochester, N.Y.

His mother, of course, was our beloved Vashti McCollum, who until her recent death in her 90s was an honorary officer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. This is a position reserved exclusively for activists who have taken and won an important victory for the separation of church and state before the U.S. Supreme Court. Longtime members will remember Vashti, who spoke at several FFRF conventions, and will also remember her as the author of the classic book, One Woman’s Fight. One Woman’s Fight is the best testament I know of to the harm of religion in public schools. It’s as readable as a novel, compelling and personable, and Vashti was kind enough to allow the Foundation to reprint it so it would stay in circulation.

Jim is the reason his mother took and won the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education lawsuit, declaring unconstitutional religious devotional classes and instruction in our public schools. He, a young schoolboy, was subjected to all manner of reprisal for deciding in the 5th grade not to sign up for a Protestant class taught by a Christian missionary. Jim was at the center of that huge legal storm in Champaign, Ill., back in the the 1940s. The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision written by Justice Hugo Black, ruled in Vashti and Jim’s favor in 1948.

Jim weathered that storm very nicely–in part taking refuge with his maternal grandparents in Rochester for most of his 7th and 8th grade years. He graduated from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana with a degree in Geology, was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, pursued a law degree, and spent 34 years practicing law in Rochester. He very fittingly had a personal audience with Justice Black during his admission to the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

He has three children and five grandchildren. His wife, Betty Grace, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, is here with Jim today. Jim retired from law in 1994, but didn’t retire. He moved back to the family farm in Arkansas. Both Jim and Betty work at Southern Arkansas University, Jim as a computer technician and instructor. And he is also enrolled in a degree program in agricultural science!

If you’ve done the math, you’ll have figured out that this year, 2008, is the 60th anniversary of the great McCollum decision. It is still good precedent–prevailing law upon which the other “religion in school cases” were built. At the Freedom From Religion Foundation we invoke it constantly in working to protect children from religious violations, and it was the precedent in our win at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals several years ago to rid Dayton, Tenn., schools of fundamentalist weekly instruction.

This fall marks the debut of The Lord Was Not on Trial, a thorough history of the McCollum case written by Jim’s younger brother, Dannel, the former mayor of Champaign–who also endured the Champaign storm over this case.

We are so very pleased to have this occasion to honor Jim for his unique and lasting contributions to Establishment Clause law, and to present Jim with this Champion of the First Amendment plaque.

This is the acceptance speech for a 2008 Champion of the First Amendment award presented on Oct. 11, 2008, at the 31st annual national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Chicago, Ill. At the conclusion of his talk, Jim kindly presented the Foundation with a $1,000 check for his Lifetime Membership.

By James T. (Jim) McCollum

The right to go to hell! Just after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the McCollum case, a newspaper that had supported the opposition came up with a headline that read, “The Supreme Court has just given little Jimmy McCollum the right to go to hell!” And I’ve been working on that ever since!

I am both honored and humbled to have been invited here to accept the Champion of the First Amendment Award. It is also a delight to be able to celebrate with you all the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in what has become known as the “McCollum Case.” This is a subject, understandably, that is not only close to my heart, but has been a major influence on my life!

In the fall of 1943, when I entered 4th grade in the public schools of Champaign, Ill., I was confronted by a teacher who was soliciting, ostensibly, “voluntary” registration in a Protestant Christian class, to be held during school hours in the public school building. Because my parents objected to this invasion of the public schools by sectarian religious activity, I was not allowed, initially, to participate. After much pressure on me and my parents by the teacher and by me as well, however, I was eventually allowed to attend these classes for the balance of that school year, with serious misgivings on the part of my parents.

Parenthetically, I might add, that religion had never been a particularly notable subject of conversation in our household, one way or the other, up to that point. Interestingly, upon my joining the class already in progress, I found that these basically Sunday school bible classes were pitched to almost a kindergarten level and made little sense to me, as a 4th grader. Further, these stories appeared to me, at the time, as fairy tales that these folks were actually taking seriously!

Accordingly, the next year, I, as well as my parents, were not the least bit desirous of further participation. As a result, I was subjected to indignities by the school and some abuse by my peers. The former consisted of being placed at a desk in the hall or being exiled to the teacher’s lounge during the religion classes, both normally used as modes of punishment for misbehaving students.

After unsuccessful attempts to deal with the problem through administrative channels, my mother, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, with the help of the Unitarian minister in Champaign-Urbana, secured an attorney and some funding from a Chicago Jewish businessmen’s organization, and filed a mandamus action against the school board to compel it to terminate the program. She lost before the trial panel of three judges in the spring of 1946, and again on appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in her favor in the spring of 1948 in its landmark decision in People of the State of Illinois ex rel McCollum v. Board of Education, 33 US 203 (1948).

The significance of the case was twofold. First, the high court ruled that a school district taxpayer did, indeed, have standing to sue. More importantly, is that this was the first case of impression in U.S. constitutional law that held the several states accountable to the strictures of the establishment of religion clause of the first amendment of the Constitution by virtue of the due process clause of the 14th amendment. This is significant because, in Barron v. Baltimore, 7 Peters 243 (1833), a case decided by the Supreme Court in 1833, the Court held that the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) does not apply to the states, only to the federal government. Since the 14th, one of the so-called Civil War amendments, specifically does apply to the states and their municipalities, anything encompassed by the 14th’s due process clause likewise applies to them. All cases involving school prayers, public aid to religious schools, display of sectarian religious symbols in or about public buildings and other such religious practices, aid or preferences to sectarian institutions by public authorities on the state or local level are within the purview of the legal doctrine laid down in the McCollum case. As Justice Hugo Black stated in his majority opinion in the case, quoting from the dicta in an earlier opinion:


The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this:
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 nor influence a person to go to or 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.”

(Quoted verbatim by Justice Black from his majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 US 1 (1947)

As much of a victory as this was, it unfortunately is not the end of the story. For the forces of the religious right are more militant today than they were at the time of the McCollum decision, with all kinds of challenges, both to the introduction of religion in the public schools, but also for aid to sectarian private schools and even challenges to the time-honored concept of the separation of church and state.

However, because elements of the religious right have made a major issue of the validity of the concept of separation of church and state, I would like to say a few words about the relationship between government and religion in this country. First, I’m going to read four excerpts from the United States Constitution and one from an early treaty that these detractors of Jefferson’s wall would like to forget.

From the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, undoubtedly is familiar to all of you:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . .

From the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution:


No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

From Clause 3 of the Sixth Article of the U.S. Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

From Clause 2 of the Sixth Article:


This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The significance of this clause is that it makes the terms of a treaty the supreme law of the land, which brings up the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated in the administration of George Washington, during his second term, and ratified by Congress on 7 June 1797 and signed by John Adams a few days later, on 10 June. It states, in part in the 11th Article:

“ . . . the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion . . . “

It is important to note that those men who negotiated and ratified this treaty were, indeed, our founding fathers. Further, the only mention of religion in the Constitution and its amendments speaks of neutrality, not establishment. Contrary to the assertions of some Christian revisionists today, these Founding Fathers clearly intended to create a secular government, neutral towards religion–any religion.

In spite of this, a recent poll by the First Amendment Center showed that 63% of our fellow Americans believe that our founding fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation. Even more astounding, that poll found that 55% believed that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation! This is scary, folks! One wonders what they are teaching about government in our public schools!

There are those who have attempted to convince us, in recent years, that we must return to the Christianity of early America. Yet according to the historian, Robert T. Handy, “No more than 10%–probably less–of Americans in 1800 were members of congregations.” Many of the Founding Fathers rarely practiced Christian orthodoxy themselves, but were Deists at most. In the constitution they drafted, they supported the free exercise of any religion, because they understood the dangers of religion mixed with government.

It is quite often claimed that the common law was a Christian invention. However, the Romans had a common law system until Justinian codified the law. And as to England, the Saxons introduced the concept of the common law upon their settlement of England, long before Christianization. Further, the essence of the common law was not religious, but an accumulation of judicial decisions by judges that subsequent jurists followed, thereby building up a body of law.

Imposed upon the common law in 1215 was the Magna Carta, the precursor of constitutional law. This was political, not religious.

Since the days of the Magna Carta, the purpose of a government based upon a constitution that is difficult to change and that supercedes all other laws, is to prevent rash, not-well-thought-out, heat-of-the-moment actions of that government, especially those dealing with individual rights, as well as preventing a tyranny by the majority. I believe the language of our constitution has served us well, in these regards, in the over 220 years since it was adopted.

Indeed, it is important to note that where government aids religion, as is the case in many European countries, some of which even have established churches, church attendance hovers around 2 to 4%. Whereas, in the United States, where government is prohibited from doing so, surveys have shown that nearly 50% attend church on a regular basis and a large majority profess a belief in a supreme being of some sort!

Also, in countries where a particular religious group is favored by government over other groups or where religious strife is fostered as a tool of control over the masses, such as is the case in the north of Ireland, in the Balkins and in numerous other lands to this day, many are killed, maimed, raped and subjected to a host of other atrocities, all in the name of religion. Our system of constitutional government has, thus far, insulated us from this plague. Freedom of religion and its adjunct, the separation of church and state, are among the basic principles upon which this country was founded and which our founding fathers saw fit to enshrine in our constitution.

It is important to remember the wise admonition of Wendell Phillips, attorney and noted abolitionist activist, that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I am proud to be part of an organization that takes that admonition to heart and is one of the leading defenders of our religious liberty!

Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation