Vashti McCollum died on August 20. If you’re an American atheist or humanist, she may be one of the most important people you’ve never heard of.
The Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times News Service did a good job summing up her life and significance in a story by Jon Thurber that was published last week.
Here are the key passages (with a few parts underlined for what I hope are obvious reasons):
Vashti Cromwell McCollum, the Illinois housewife whose objection to her son's taking religious training in school led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the separation of church and state in public education, has died. She was 93....
James McCollum, the first of McCollum's three sons, was in fourth grade in a Champaign [Illinois] school when he was required to take religious classes during the normal school day. The classes were held on campus and taught by a former missionary to China and were mainly a Protestant program.
Although his mother and father John, a professor of horticulture at the University of Illinois, resisted the idea at first, they allowed him to attend the religious classes during that school year. James McCollum told The Los Angeles Times on Sunday that he was initially interested in seeing what the classes were all about but then found them boring and silly.
The next year, he decided he didn't want to go on with the religious training, and his parents supported him. His decision was met with ridicule from other students, but primarily from a teacher who criticized him for keeping the class from being 100 percent in compliance with the religious curriculum.
Vashti McCollum went to the superintendent of schools but was told that there was nothing to be done about the requirement.
After gaining the support of a local Unitarian minister and some financial backing from a group of Jewish businessmen in Chicago, she filed suit against the Champaign school board in July 1945. Six months later, a three-judge circuit court panel upheld the instruction. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld their ruling a year later.
But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and on March 9, 1948, the justices delivered an 8-1 decision saying that the religious education classes in Champaign's public schools violated the constitutional provisions for separation of church and state.
Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black stated: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between the church and the state which must be kept high and impregnable.”
While the final decision was in her favor and set historic precedents, the road getting there was not easy for McCollum or her family. “It was traumatic and expensive,” she told The St. Louis Post Dispatch some years ago.
She lost her job as a part-time dance instructor in the physical education department at the University of Illinois. And while her husband had tenure in his university position, which kept him from getting fired, his promotion to full professor was delayed by “10 or 15 years,” James McCollum told the Times.
Threatening phone calls were received at the family home in Champaign. On occasions the house was pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables. In school, young James was taunted by his peers, and was sent by his family to live with his mother's parents in Rochester, N.Y....
According to a press release issued by the American Humanist Association on Aug 24, “McCollum continued on through her life to fight for religious freedom and Humanism. She was elected to the American Humanist Association board of directors in 1952 and served as president of the AHA from 1962 to 1965. She has won numerous awards and recognitions, including the prestigious John Haynes Holmes Award (now the Holmes-Weatherly Award) from the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice and the AHA Distinguished Service Award in 1991. She also wrote eloquently of her 1945 legal battle and the ensuing community assaults and indignities she and her family endured in One Woman’s Fight”....
Vashti’s story is a reminder that many of the rights we atheists enjoy today weren’t graciously given to us by Christians out of the goodness of their hearts but were won by people willing to stand up and demand them in the face of intense opposition. We forget this at our peril....
(NOTE TO SELF: The next time someone suggests that the Ten Commandments be posted on a courtroom or classroom wall or chiseled into a block of marble on public grounds, suggest that a portrait or statue of Vashti be put there instead since Christians seem to need to be reminded not to violate the separation of church and state far more than atheists need to be reminded not to kill or steal.)