THE REAL STORY OF HOW SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS BECAME PART OF AMERICAN LAW – AND THE COURAGEOUS WOMAN WHO MADE IT HAPPEN
She was called “that awful woman” by her neighbors, and “that atheist mother” by newspapers across the country. Her friends stopped returning phone calls rather than risk speaking with her. She was branded a communist, and the Illinois State Legislature nearly outlawed her and her husband from ever working at the state university again. She received up to 200 letters a day, some of the writers claiming they would pray for her; many wishing for much worse.
All because, in 1945, Vashti McCollum would file a historic lawsuit that would forever change the relationship between religion and public school in America – and turn this young housewife from central Illinois into an unlikely champion of the separation of church and state.
In 1940, the Champaign, Illinois public school district instituted a voluntary religion class in its grade schools, something that was being done in school districts across the country. Vashti McCollum initially didn’t allow her oldest son, 10 year old Jim, permission to take the religion class. She believed religion was a personal matter, and not one for the schools, but after persistent begging by Jim, she finally relented. Then she saw the materials being used in the class. “It was indoctrination into the old Christian faith,” she remembered. “So I said never again.”
So Jim sat out the class, but he was the only one in his classroom who didn’t have permission to take the religion class. Not knowing what to do with Jim during the time of religion class, the teacher sat him in a desk in the hall, the same place kids were placed when they were punished. Jim suffered brutal bullying as a result and came home in tears. Vashti McCollum decided that was enough. “Never again,” Mrs. McCollum remembered, still angry, “would he be put in the hall.” So she sued the Champaign school district to put a stop to the religion class, beginning a three-year odyssey that would change American public schools forever.
The Lord is Not On Trial Here Today is a Peabody Award-winning documentary that tells the compelling personal story of Vashti McCollum, and how her efforts to protect her ten year-old son led to one of the most important and landmark First Amendment cases in U.S. Supreme Court history — the case that established the separation of church and state in public schools. The case is little-known by the contemporary American public, yet the McCollum decision continues to have important ramifications for current conflicts over the role of religion in public institutions – from displays of the Ten Commandments in government buildings to student-led prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.
The film recounts what Vashti McCollum later described as “three years of headlines, headaches, and hatred,” and the dramatic legal maneuverings that led to a decision that shocked the nation and made the McCollums a household name. “Beautifully researched” according to the Peabody Awards, perhaps one reviewer says it best: “The Lord is Not On Trial Here Today [tells] a little-known story of a woman, a court case, and a movement that changed American society forever.”