Religion and Public Schools: Honoring the Anniversary of McCollum v. Board of Education

Today marks the sixty-ninth anniversary of the historic US Supreme Court decision in McCollum v. Board of Education. The original lawsuit asked the Board of Education of a school district in Champaign, Illinois, to “terminate their practice of holding religious education classes in public school buildings on school time.” The McCollum decision is incredibly significant because not only was it one of the first US Supreme Court Establishment Clause cases, but it has now set an important standard, making clear that the government cannot use its resources to promote or support religion in public schools.

In 1945 Jim McCollum, a fourth grade public school student in Champaign, Illinois, gave his mother a permission slip that would allow him to attend religious classes during school hours. These classes were to be taught by former missionaries and so-called “religious educators,” and students who attended the weekly classes would remain in the classroom, while those who chose not to participate would sit in the hall. Knowing that these religious classes violated the separation of church and state, his mother, Vashti McCollum (an agnostic), refused to sign the permission slip. Quickly thereafter, Jim was alienated and mocked for not taking the religious class. Vashti was not about to sit back and instead decided to take action.

To celebrate the anniversary of McCollum v. Board of Education (full case name: People of State of Illinois ex rel. Vashti McCollum v. Board of Education of School District № 71, Champaign County, Illinois, et al.), I spoke with Jim McCollum about his feelings about the court case, his continued dedication to the separation of church and state, and being “recognized” in his small town of Magnolia, Arkansas. How did you feel when you learned that your mother, Vashti McCollum, was suing the Board of Education of School District № 71, Champaign County, Illinois? Did you ever question what she was doing?

Jim McCollum: I supported my mom and what she was doing one hundred percent. I talk about this with my brother, Dannel, a lot. Neither of us has ever regretted anything that our mother did and supported all of the decisions that she made. My father, who was an atheist but not aggressive about his beliefs, supported my mom and her decisions as well. We had a strong and stable family unit which really made a difference. We—my mother and I—knew that the religious program did not belong in my public school and it created a divide among the students. In 2008 your brother published The Lord Was Not on Trial, an inside story of the court case. You wrote the foreword to the book, in which you stated: “My dedication to the importance of what has become known as Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state has not abated.” How have you remained dedicated to the separation of church and state?

McCollum: The separation of church and state is incredibly important and I have dedicated much of my time at both the local and national level to ensure its separation. Shortly after moving to Arkansas in 1995, I founded the Arkansas Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State and founded the Secular Student Alliance at Southern Arkansas University. I have been incredibly active with the Columbia County Democratic Party down here and have garnered support for separation of church and state legislation.

For the past nine years, I have been an adjunct professor at Southern Arkansas University and I teach a course on constitutional law. Even though it’s a public institution, there was a Southern Baptist prayer (for the whole audience to hear) before every school football game. After learning of this tradition, I approached the school and told them that to have a strictly Christian prayer before all football games is insulting to those who are not Christian. I was persistent and eventually the Christian prayers stopped. While there are still prayers before football games, they are not only Christian prayers and I think that is a huge improvement. Since you teach a course on constitutional law at Southern Arkansas University, do your students know who you are? Do you incorporate the McCollum v. Board of Education case into your course?

McCollum: Up until this past year, I would start my constitutional law course by showing my students the documentary, The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today. While I find the documentary to be an active depiction of the court case, I realized that it was not very instructive and decided to try something different. Last semester, I had my students read The Lord Was Not on Trial and write a critical book review of the issues and people involved. I received some very interesting critiques. While the majority of the students were affirming of the characters and issues, some students criticized the first attorney  for trying to steer the case in a religious direction as opposed to a constitutional direction. I think my students have enjoyed learning about the case and its historical impact. I am certainly well known around the school and in the community as an activist, a liberal, and an atheist. Everyone around here knows I am an atheist but they also know that I am much more than that. With Betsy DeVos as the new secretary of education, many are nervous about the future of religion in public schools. Do you have any suggestions as to what atheists, humanists, and secularists should do?

McCollum: Yes, people are still trying to put God back into public schools. We have a responsibility to prevent that from happening. We need to keep our eyes open and get involved at the local level. Become involved with your local community organizations, like Rotary Clubs and political organizations, and let people know that you are a humanist or atheist and explain the importance of separation of church and state. It might be a little bit of an uphill battle but it’s worth the fight.