The Woman Who Separated Church From State

It’s not always easy to be ahead of one’s time. In 1945, Vashti McCollum, a mother of three and a part-time square-dancing teacher in Champaign, Ill. became one of the most notorious women in America when she sued the local public schools for teaching a class on Christianity. She received mountains of hate mail, her 10-year old son was beaten up in school and smeared in court as a “misfit,” and her husband’s university job was threatened.

But her unwavering efforts paid off. Three years later, her landmark Supreme-Court case, McCollum v. Board of Education, established the separation of church and state in public schools, leading to a more secular society overall.

A new award-winning documentary about McCollum, The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today, will air nationally through March on PBS. That’s just in time for Women’s History Month–and, more obscurely, for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which features the story of the rebellious, now-feminist icon Queen Vashti, after whom McCollum was named. (The fact that her name is Biblical is particularly ironic, considering the outspoken atheist views of her father, Arthur Cromwell, who had a Protestant background.)

I asked filmmaker Jay Rosenstein about this remarkable woman, whom he interviewed just before her death in 2006 at age 93.

Ms. Blog:  Vashti McCollum was no ordinary  small-town housewife. What in her background helped drive her?

Jay Rosenstein: I think it was three things. First, she had attended college … Cornell, an Ivy league school. That in itself was pretty atypical of women at that time.  Second, I believe her parents raised her with a strong belief in thinking for oneself; her father later became a hardcore “freethinker.” Third–and probably most importantly — it was just the nature of her personality. Vashti was the kind of woman who wouldn’t take any crap. Her son Dan described her as someone for whom “patience was no virtue.” When her oldest son Jim spoke about her at her memorial after she died, he titled his speech “My mother the Sarge.” That probably says it all.

I didn’t know until I watched your film that there were so many public schools in the U.S. introducing religious classes after WWII. What was the rationale, and how were they tied to patriotism? Why was it especially controversial at that time to stand up as an atheist?

This was the time when the “Red Scare” was beginning in this country, with the first anti-Communist HUAC hearings taking place. There was nothing worse at the time then being identified as a Communist. Because atheists didn’t have any religion, to say you were an atheist meant you were the same as the godless Communists, and [you were] treated as if you were a Communist.

I know that the film does not take an explicit political stance. But how do you think her case is relevant today?

Just [this week], presidential candidate Rick Santorum was all over the media with his comment that JFK’s pledge to absolute separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.” That’s just the very latest appearance of separation of church and state in headlines everywhere. But the problem with these debates about separation of church and state is how few people truly understand what it means, and especially where it came from. Opponents regularly like to point out that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, which it isn’t. But it was the Supreme Court ruling in the McCollum case, the first case in U.S. history ever won based on separation of church and state, where the Court basically constitutionalizes the phrase. It should be a required civics lesson that everyone in the country learn that history, and it comes from the McCollum case. As to Santorum, my comment is that if separation of church and state makes him want to throw up, then Vashti McCollum shoved the first fingers down his throat!

Photo is a screen shot of the documentary The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today. To view the film trailer click here.

Comments

  1. bjwalls says:

    Factual error in this article. Please note that “McCollum”(1948), came after the establishment clause was “incorporated” in “Everson v. Board of Educatio” (1947) where the Supreme Court first embraced Jefferson’s phrase “separation of church and state.” The Court stated:

    “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 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 entertain- [330 U.S. 1, 16] ing or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. 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 from 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.’ Reynolds v. United States, supra, 98 U.S. at page 164.

    • Jay Rosenstein says:

      bjwalls – you are correct about Everson being the first case where the court embraced the language of Jefferson. But notice that I write that McCollum is the first case won on separation of church and state. In Everson, the court found that there was not a violation of church-state separation. A lot of this is around semantics, which I think is very confusing to people without a legal background. FYI – the Everson case is covered and included in the documentary. Thanks for your comment.

    • Dr. James T. McCollum says:

      Yes, Everson did discuss the issue of the Establishment of Religion Clause. However, since the Court did not find a violation, most of what was said was dicta. It waited until the next year when it decided McCollum to actually apply that dicta to the case. Actually, however the first religion cases dealt with the Freedom of Religion Clause of the 1st Amendment and they preceded McCollum in the early ’40s and involved the Jehovah’s Witnesses right to proselytize in public. McCollum dealt with the Establishment Clause.

      • Patricia Cummins says:

        Great comments by bjwalls, Jay Rosenstein, and Dr. James T. McCollum! I feel as if I know all of you. Dr. McCollum, I still have all the documents you sent me and the ones I shared with you over 30 years ago! And producer Rosenstein, thank you for producing this historical event, led and fought by a women, an educated woman, and bjwalls for your sharing your research for all. Thank you Paula Kamen and Ms. Blog for the review. I am so proud to know (at least through common interests) all of you!

        I will never forget finding Vashti’s book in a thrift store. The book mentioned the name of an organization of which I am a part of, so I purchased the book and sat down and read the whole thing! I was amazed and shocked that a little boy, Jim, and others were subjected to such horrible treatment just because they did not choose the religion of the day. When the dirty, filthy, rotten garbage was poured on, I remember thinking, “Oh, My! I just cannot believe this!” I couldn’t believe that this was happening in the US! Sadly, I did find out that it was true!
        Since that time, and as a result of other human atrocities, mainly to women and children, I became an attorney to advocate on behalf of women and children.
        I have helped expose the lack of Constitutional rights in the United States Territories. I though mainland US and certain states were bad, but WHEW! was I ever shocked at what goes on in US Territories in regards to women! See MS Magazine, Spring 2005 Paradise Lost: Forced abortions, …trafficking…in US Territories. I can personally tell of and show evidence of these things. Thank you Ellie Smeal and the others for listening to me, and thanks for all you and others did to help the situations.

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