Our Humanity, Naturally

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An atheist mom goes to the Supreme Court - and wins

Vashti McCollum's story comes to PBS

Imagine that you are a religious minority sending your child to public school, only to find out that the school has implemented a "voluntary" program of religious instruction that reaffirms the doctrines and creeds of the largely Christian community. Like most people, you don't want to make waves by challenging the views of the majority, so you allow your child to participate in this program, hoping that it will emphasize education, not indoctrination. Your child soon comes home with artwork and other materials, however, that indicate that the program is little more than a Christian Sunday school, having nothing to do with objective education and everything to do with instilling Christian beliefs.

Fed up with the blatant proselytizing, you advise the school that you do not want your child to participate in the "voluntary" program. Since it is conducted during ordinary school hours, not after school, and since your child is the only one who is not participating, the school must now decide what to do with your child while everyone else participates. To resolve this dilemma, the school orders your child to sit in the "detention chair," a highly visible seat outside the principal's office normally used for disciplining children who have been misbehaving, while all the other children participate in the religious instruction program.

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The above facts, unfortunately, are not fictional. They are part of the story of the McCollum family of Champaign, Illinois, and they set the stage for one of the greatest church-state confrontations in American history. This story is being brought to life in a superb new documentary, called "The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today" that will begin airing on PBS in May.

The documentary, produced by Jay Rosenstein, tells the story of Vashti McCollum's struggle to defend her children - and the wall of separation between church and state - against majoritarian religious bullying, a fight that went from a small courthouse in Champaign all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The legal case culminated with an historic 8-1 Supreme Court victory for the McCollums, a landmark 1948 precedent that was the first case to successfully apply the Constitution's Establishment Clause to state action under the Fourteenth Amendment. (One earlier case, the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, had ruled that the Establishment Clause applied to the states, but nevertheless decided that the state action in question didn't violate that clause. McCollum was the first such case wherein the plaintiffs won.)

The McCollum family's victory infuriated religious conservatives, who had won every stage of the legal battle until it reached the Supreme Court. It also laid the foundation for many other church-state victories that followed, such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) which banned official school prayer, Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) which ended school-sponsored Bible study, and numerous others.

Rosenstein covers the legal chronology well, but the documentary's most compelling moments are those that recount the blowback experienced by the family, the senseless hostility directed toward them for standing up for their principles. Hate mail, intimidation, a mutilated pet, threatened careers, and other repercussions all flowed from their simple act of resisting public religiosity. Many of the good Christians of Champaign and America, it seems, weren't feeling very Christ-like.

The documentary is made priceless by the frequent inclusion of interview segments with Vashti, who was 92 when Rosenstein sat with her, and who has since died. Throughout the film viewers see numerous photographs of the younger Vashti, whose natural beauty shines through, and one can sense from those photos that she was probably an ordinary wife and mother and a reluctant warrior. The late-life interviews, where viewers get to see and hear the real Vashti, only confirm what one suspects. She's smart, to be sure, but far from a rabble-rouser and no more feisty than your typical 90-something. She conveys a sense that, had the school system been even slightly reasonable, she never would have been a litigant.

But having been pushed to litigation by the esteemed men of her community, men who showed her little respect and were dismissive of her concerns, Vashti took them to the mat and taught them a lesson. As a result, church-state law in America rests on a foundation built by the mother of three from Champaign.

Attendees at the American Humanist Association's recent annual conference got a special screening of the film, and the response seemed unanimous - this is one documentary that you won't want to miss, and that you'll want your kids to see. 

And I'll add one post-script not mentioned in the documentary. Vashti also served as president of the American Humanist Association from 1962 to 1965.

Text copyright 2011 Dave Niose

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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