Illinois Decision Paved The Way For Individual Freedom
The proper role of religion in public education has long vexed Americans. In a country of increasing diversity, how can we best ensure that young people from many faiths and none are educated without sectarian strife?
One way we do that is by making sure that public schools don’t get into the theology business. Instruction on prayer, worship and doctrine belong in the home and at the house of worship. This system ensures parental rights.
Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court affirmed this important principle in a crucial, if often overlooked, Supreme Court case called McCollum v. Board of Education.
In McCollum, the high court struck down a supposedly “voluntary” program of religious instruction operating inside a Champaign, Ill., public school. Religious instructors entered the school, and students were split up according to their faith – Catholic, Protestant or Jewish.
Vashti McCollum didn’t want her 8-year-old son, Jim, to take part. Jim was the only student not taking the “released-time” classes. He tended to stand out because of that.
The McCollums fought against the classes in state courts and lost. But at the U.S. Supreme Court, they won a lopsided 8-1 victory. Justice Hugo Black penned the lead opinion, which is only 10 paragraphs long. Black endorsed the wall of separation between church and state and noted that the program must fail because religious groups were relying on “the State’s compulsory public school machinery.”
The McCollum case is important for a number of reasons. It was the first decision in which the Supreme Court struck down a government action that violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. It reaffirmed the idea that key portions of the Bill of Rights apply to the states. It gave the court another opportunity to state the importance of the church-state wall. It paved the way for the school prayer decisions that were to come 14 years later.
But most importantly, the decision affirmed what has become a bedrock legal principle: Public schools are not the places for evangelism or the promotion of religion. Appropriate objective study about religion is fine in public schools. State promotion of worship is not.
Vashti McCollum, the brave mother who pioneered this case, is no longer with us. Her children are, and they remain active in defending church-state separation. Jim has been an AU chapter activist for many years. He keeps up the fight, working daily to preserve the principles of the case that bears his family name.