Jay Rosenstein
Jay Rosenstein Credit: Brian Stauffer

“You would look so cute without an eye to offend you and without a tongue to offend me and mine.” —Hate mail to Vashti Cromwell McCollum

Two weeks ago, just days before the U.S. Supreme Court decided it’s OK for Arizona to subsidize religious school tuition, University of Illinois journalism professor Jay Rosenstein won a Peabody award for The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today, a documentary about the extraordinary battle waged more than 60 years ago by an Illinois housewife and mother to get religion out of public schools.

Vashti Cromwell McCollum’s campaign to bring church-state separation to the Champaign schools her sons were attending went all the way to the nation’s highest court. Her ultimate victory made religious instruction illegal in public schools anywhere in the country. The McCollum decision is still invoked regularly to keep public education secular, though most of us now take that for granted. Back then, it was a lonely fight against an accepted norm: the “Atheist Mother” became a pariah in Champaign and far beyond.

Rosenstein, a Chicago native, teaches television production at the U. of I. His best-known documentary prior to this one is In Whose Honor?, a 1997 study of Native American mascots in sports. He’s lived in Champaign since 1985, and says McCollum’s story is local lore there, which is how he came to hear about it, seven or eight years ago. “I wondered if she was alive,” he says. By 2005 he was filming interviews with her in the Champaign elderly housing facility where she spent her final years. At 92 she was weathered and bent but still staunch as she recalled the day her son came home from grade school with a drawing he’d made of Christ rising from the dead.

Vashti McCollum
Vashti McCollum

Vashti and her husband, John “Pappy” McCollum, a professor in the university’s College of Agriculture, were humanists and rationalists. They didn’t believe in God or the Bible. She came to this more or less directly, she said, having been brought up by nonreligious parents (her father, Arthur Cromwell, later founded the Society of Free Thinkers in Rochester, New York). Pappy, raised in the south, might have been reacting to an overdose of fire and brimstone. A handsome couple and smart—she’d gone to Cornell on a scholarship—they were bringing up their three boys, James, Dannel, and Errol, in a gabled home surrounded by evergreens on West John Street—a picture-book American family, wholesome and typical except for their lack of religion.

In those days religiosity was woven into the national fabric. The common wisdom was that God was on our side during the war against atheistic Nazis. The other devil on the loose was godless communism. Morality stemmed from religion; piety and patriotism went hand in hand. Conformity was the rule, and McCarthyism was on the near horizon.

In 1940 the Champaign School District—like many others across the country—had instituted a “released time” program that brought Sunday-school teachers into the public schools for a half-hour of religious training once a week. The program was nominally optional; parents signed a permission card and paid a 25-cent fee for the semester. But there was pressure—and not only from the other students. McCollum recalls in the film that any teacher whose class had 100 percent participation would get a star on her classroom door. Jim, a fifth grader in the fall of 1944, was the only holdout in his class, and his teacher was “adamant” in her insistence that he join in.

McCollum persisted in her refusal, and that year Jim was ostracized and assaulted by the other students. When the teacher forced him to take the hall seat reserved for troublemakers while the religious session went on in the classroom, he told his mother he didn’t want to go to school on religious-study days anymore. Appeals to the superintendent and local legislators didn’t help, and by the spring of 1945 Vashti saw that she’d have to take the school board to court. There was little sympathy for her cause in Champaign, but a young Unitarian minister, Philip Schug, put her in touch with a small nonprofit organization, the Chicago Action Council, which offered to pay her legal expenses.

The council also selected her abrasive first attorney, Landon Chapman. In June 1945 he filed a petition asking the Circuit Court of Champaign County to immediately prohibit “all teaching in religious education in all public schools.” In the community the issue was framed as Christianity versus atheism, and the “Bible trial,” as it was known, was heard that September by a three-judge panel that included a former Champaign school-district lawyer. (The district was represented by one of his former partners.)

McCollum wanted the case argued on the grounds of church-state separation, but Chapman had more dramatic plans—most of which backfired even as they drew national publicity. He brought in a parade of practitioners of other religious doctrines, elicited a teacher’s statement that Jim was a misfit, included testimony from McCollum’s by-then sensationally radical father, insulted believers himself at every turn, and finally put the ten-year-old on the stand to testify—to the horror of most observers—that he had stopped believing in God before he went to kindergarten.

They lost, the circuit court ruling that the religious classes were voluntary and therefore didn’t violate the Constitution. The court of public opinion was harsher than ever: garbage was tossed in McCullom’s face, the family cat was murdered, and hate mail continued to arrive daily. In the film a grown-up James recalls that “it didn’t seem very Christian.” The McCollums sent him east to school the next year. In the most poignant moment of the film, McCollum recalls that when she put him on the train, alone, he said, “Thanks, mom, thanks a million.”

McCollum fired Chapman and found a new lawyer, University of Chicago political science professor and constitutional scholar Walter Dodd. He took her case to the Illinois supreme court, where they lost again, and then, in December 1947, to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a recent decision about using public school buses to transport children to religious school had set the stage by making it clear that the constitutional clause forbidding Congress from establishing any religion also applies to state government. Dodd made the constitutional argument, and on March 8, 1948, a decision was handed down. In a majority opinion written by Justice Hugo Black, the court declared that religious instruction in public schools during school hours is a violation of the “wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.”

Vashti McCollum died in 2006. Despite—or perhaps because of—his ordeal in court, James grew up to be an attorney. His brother Dannel, the middle son, became a teacher, author, and for three terms in the 1980s and ’90s, the mayor of Champaign.

In addition to screening at the Talking Pictures Festival on Sunday, The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today will run at noon on WTTW on Sunday, May 8.