Those who spend a good deal of time reading or writing about issues of religion in government know all too well how frustrating things can be on the side of secularism. We find ourselves unwilling targets in a constant onslaught of attacks on the separation of church and state, ranging from the teaching of creationism and mandated prayer to tax exemptions for religious institutions. Thankfully, those who seek to preserve the state of our secular government are armed with the ultimate defense: The power of indisputable legal precedent. While there will always be new battles to wage in the courts, it's important to pause now and then and reflect on the role these past victories play in our present-day lives.
This year, we at the Illini Secular Student Alliance will be doing our part by celebrating one such victory (an important part of our local history, no less) – the 65th anniversary of the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that originated in our own backyard.
The dispute began in September of 1945 when a Champaign, Illinois woman by the name of Vashti McCollum objected to the religious classes her son was forced to attend every day in his public school. Citing the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, McCollum sued the school board to "adopt and enforce rules and regulations prohibiting all instruction in and teaching of all religious education in all public schools in Champaign District Number 71, and in all public school houses and buildings in said district when occupied by public schools." When the local circuit and Illinois Supreme Court failed her, McCullom appealed their verdicts to the U.S. Supreme Court. This time, she won. In a landmark 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court found that:
"To hold that a state cannot consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments utilize its public school system to aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideals does not … manifest a governmental hostility to religion or religious teachings. … For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere."
To this day, the historic McCollum v. Board of Education ruling serves as a rock-solid foundation for the continued secularism of our nation’s public schools, and Vashti McCullom is remembered as a hero and a paradigm of strength in the face of public vilification of secular activists.
In fact, writer/director/producer and University of Illinois Professor Jay Rosenstein explored McCullom’s story in his 2010 documentary The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today.
In celebration not only of the Court's decision, but also of McCollum's extraordinary courage, we at ISSA will be screening Rosenstein's Peabody and Emmy Award-winning documentary at the historic Art Theater in downtown Champaign on Thursday, September 13th at 7pm. We humbly request your attendance and/or support for the commemoration of this important milestone in secular history. If you are so able, please consider making a donation to assist ISSA in fundraising for this event. You can do so via the Paypal button on our website. And, as always, remember the achievements of those who have come before you; we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants.