The story of James Terry and his mother, Vashti McCollum by Vashti Lozier

This is a presentation given to a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school class by Vashti Lozier, daughter of FFRF Life Member Jim McCollum (James Terry in the story) and granddaughter of Supreme Court victor Vashti Cromwell McCollum, to commemorate her namesake’s birthday (Nov. 6, 1912). The landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case in 1948 was the first time the Supreme Court issued a ruling against religious instruction in public schools.

By Vashti Lozier

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a little boy, just a little older than you. His name was James Terry and, like you, he was a Unitarian. When he started fourth grade, his school added a new class.

In addition to the usual math and reading, science and social studies, there was a class about God. James Terry brought home the permission slip to his mother so that he could take the class with his friends.

Actually, there was not just one class but two classes. You see, different people have different ideas about God. So one class was formed for students whose families had one set of ideas about God (they are called Catholics) and another class for students whose families had a different set of ideas about God (they are called Protestants). Although most of the children’s families chose one class or the other, some children’s families had other ideas about God. James Terry’s family was one such family. As Unitarians, his family had their own ideas about God. His mother, Vashti, did not sign the permission slip.

When James Terry returned to school, his teacher asked him to turn in his permission slip. She told him everyone else had turned in their slip and he was keeping the class from having a perfect record. Like many children, James Terry didn’t like being different from everyone else and he did not like disappointing his teacher.

Without a signed permission slip, James Terry could not take the new class. While his friends had their class about God, James Terry had to sit in the hallway. This is where kids sat who were being punished for bad behavior. This made James Terry feel sad and lonely. He felt different.

Soon the children in the class felt, too, that he was different. They began to tease him. Some children even hit him and stole his books. All of a sudden, he didn’t have any friends in his class. No one seemed to like him anymore. Now he felt even more alone.

James Terry’s mother didn’t like seeing her son unhappy. She knew that lots of people had lots of different ideas about God, and that it wasn’t fair that there were classes that taught the kids just one idea about God. She thought children should learn about God from their parents, at church or from their own ideas and experiences, not at school. She also didn’t think it was fair that James Terry was being teased and bullied because of his beliefs. Everyone is entitled to have the freedom to have his or her own beliefs and not be bullied and scared!

Vashti decided to do something about it. When people disagree, they can talk to a judge, who decides who is right. Vashti decided to talk with a judge (actually nine judges who made up the Supreme Court of the United States). Some people felt that it was OK for the children to learn about God at school and others agreed with Vashti and James Terry. The judges listened carefully to both sides and decided that Vashti and James Terry were right and, after that, there were no more classes about God at school.

After hearing the judges’ decision, James Terry said, “I knew Mom was right. Everybody thought Mom and I were wrong, but now they can’t think that unless they think the judges are wrong, too.”

Even today, at your own school, it is thanks to James Terry and his mother that children of all families and of all religions are free to go to school together without feeling different and without feeling scared or bullied.

Where we live, in the United States, people are free to believe whatever they choose about God or to not believe in God at all. This is not true in many other places in the world, and it is a right that, even here, we sometimes have to fight for.

Freedom From Religion Foundation