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.


Paula Kamen is the author of four books and the play Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which has been performed at many college campuses. Her first book, Feminist Fatale, was about the importance of consciousness raising for the post boomer generation. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Women’s Review of Books and McSweeney’s, among others. She tweets @paulakamen.