Movie: McCollum v. Board of Education

Heather Hastie called my attention to the existence of a movie, McCollum v. Board of Education, that exists in its entirety on YouTube. This case, which was argued before the Supreme Court in late 1947 and decided in 1948, decided the issue of whether public schools could support religious education by setting aside class time for religious instruction. (This took place in Champaign, Illinois.) In a landmark First Amendment decision, the Court ruled 8-1 that the public schools in this case were entangled with religious instruction—using public facilities and public funds—which was unconstitutional. (You can see the full decision here.) The case had been decided in favor of religious instruction by the local circuit court and then the Illinois Supreme Court, and so was appealed to the top. Vashti McCollum, mother of an eight-year-old student, was the plaintiff; she later served as president of the American Humanist Association.

The movie, a documentary, is about an hour long, and is well worth watching if you’re interested in the history of the First Amendment. This is truly one of the key cases in buttressing the wall between church and state in America.


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I shall be giving it a look, soon as possible.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 6, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      After watching I realize that I have seen this but it is always good to review such an important issue. Justice Black was probably the greatest of supreme court justices in my opinion but others may think otherwise.

      This subject and it’s outcome is the foundation for FFRF in many ways. They fight all over the country to stop the intrusion of religion into government and public school. They need all the help they can get because although this case should make it very clear, it means nothing to the religious in their crusade.

  2. Posted April 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    In 1962 or so I remember that once a week we had something called “release time” where students were allowed to get religious instruction. I wish I remember how this was presented to us. At the time I was not very aware of the legal aspects of this. I suspect it was significant that this all occurred off-campus. I’m thinking it was a way to avoid any support-of-religion issues. I was not a believer but I don’t remember being given an “atheist” choice or a do-nothing choice. I went to what I considered the default Protestant choice. I also remember it being very boring and wished to be back in class. This was public school in Burbank, CA.

  3. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    This IMO is even more self-evident than the issue of prayers in public schools. For it clearly involves the privileging of a particular religion, evangelical Protestant Christianity, at the expense of others.

    James Madison wrote of “that mutual respect and good will among Citizens of every religious denomination which are necessary to social harmony and most favorable to the advancement of truth.”

  4. Craw
    Posted April 6, 2018 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I knew none of this.

  5. James McCollum
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    The 70th anniversary of this momentous decision occurred on 8 March, last. That was, appropriately, also International Women’s Day! I was the object of that case.

    • Posted April 7, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Well thanks for stopping by, and for letting yourself be the “person of standing.” Congratulations on helping contribute to the separation of church and state!

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always thought how brave both you and your mom were to do this. US kids have so much to thank you for. There must have been some very tough times as a kid, especially with the personal attacks re being a problem child etc.

      We still have Religious Instruction in schools in NZ, and I was looking into your story as part of finding a way to stop it. It’s actually illegal here, but there’s a loophole that schools take advantage of to do it anyway.

      Unfortunately, we can’t do what your mom did. The first step here is getting a constitution and ensuring it has a clause similar to your First Amendment. NZ is one of only three countries in the world without a constitution.

    • Laurance
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      WOW! And I do mean “wow!” I’ve just finished seeing this movie!

      I’m impressed with you, James, that you were able to go through this public ordeal! This brings up lots of thoughts for me. William Murray was in your position when Madalyn Murray (later O’Hair)did her thing. Somehow William Murray went fundamentalist Christian. You didn’t, and I’m interested in the difference.

      I’m several years younger than you, a 1941 model, and for some reason the news of what your mother was doing never was mentioned by my atheist mother or quietly freethinking and non-believing Penn State professor dad.

      But later on0
      I did hear about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and the not quite accurate “fact” that she’d taken prayer out of schools. All the spotlights were upon Madalyn, and Mr, Schempp was forgotten. I suspect that your mom’s case was a vital precedent that aided Schempp and Murray in their joint case.

      Madalyn was the lightning rod that drew the fire, at least as far as many of us were concerned. I’d like to read the history of all this and what else was going on beyond Madalyn’s razzle-dazzle. (Mind you, don’t think I’m invalidating Madalyn by referring to her by first name or speaking of razzle-dazzle! I’m a Madalyn fan, and I felt bereaved when I learned how she and Jon and Robin had died.)

      I’d love to hear a discussion about the two cases, about the similarities and differences between Schempp and McCollum, and to what extent McCollum furthered Schempp. And I’d like to hear how it was for the boys in these cases: you and William Murray, and your two brothers and William’s brother Jon.

      Thanks to your late mother for her part in sparing my daughter from school-indoctrinated religion, and thanks to you for being the boy in question who endured heavy-duty stress in getting this vital job done.

      • James McCollum
        Posted April 9, 2018 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

        > William Murray was in your position when Madalyn Murray (later O’Hair)did her thing. Somehow William Murray went fundamentalist Christian. You didn’t, and I’m interested in the difference.

        The difference is that Bill Murray was the product of a dysfunctional family and I was not. My parents had a warm, loving and stable relationship. This provided a sanctuary for my brothers and me during rough times. Bill Murray did not have this advantage.

        Ellery Schempp, a close friend of mine, was a real hero in his own right! He, as a high school student, prosecuted his own suit, backed by his loving parents, of course. He, also, came from a warm, loving and stable family.

        Schempp’s case took two trips to the Supreme Ct., since the Court sent the case back to the trial court when Pennsylvania modified its law somewhat in the interim. Murray’s case made it up to the Court at the same time as Schempp’s case made its second trip up.

        • Laurance
          Posted April 10, 2018 at 6:15 am | Permalink

          Thanks for your reply. I had school prayer and bible reading run on me until June of 1956 at which time my parents took me out of public school and sent me to a private school (where Episcopal Chapel Service was mandated each Sunday evening). And yes, it was always Protestant Christianity. Never mind the Catholics and Jews and Atheists…

          When I get some more time I think I’ll go on Google and see what more information I can get about all this. My daughter was spared all the compulsory religion that was forced on me.

          Huh! Later on in the early 1960’s when I was married, my seriously conservative mother-in-law declared, “They took God out of the schools and let the n…..s in!!!”

          So much hatefulness…!

    • Laurance
      Posted April 10, 2018 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      Uhhh….now wait a minute! That would have been 1948. I was seven and in second grade. We had bible readings from the King James bible and the protestant version of the lord’s prayer, and this went on without a stop the whole time I was in public school, never mind the Supremes.

      Sounds like there’s a difference between the Supremes passing a law, and the law being implemented and enforced.

  6. Barcs
    Posted April 7, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    The documentary is officially called “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today”

    • James McCollum
      Posted April 7, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      It was done by Dr. Jay Rosenstein, a professor at the University of Illinois and has received several awards, including the Peabody Award.

  7. Posted April 7, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I saw this in my local PBS channel in Madison a couple years ago.

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