"As long as the public school is used to recruit the child or to segregate the children according to religion or to use the truancy power of the public schools to make them go to religions classes, I'm against it."


Church-state separation champion VASHTI MCCOLLUM was born Vashti Cromwell on November 6, 1912, in Lyons, New York. Her parents, Arthur and Ruth Cromwell, had a second daughter and raised their family in Rochester, New York. Her mother named Vashti after a biblical character, Queen Vashti of Persia, who refused to follow the king's orders and was banished. Arthur Cromwell was an architect, president of the Rochester Society of Free Thinkers, and, later in life, an out-atheist.

Vashti went to Cornell University on a scholarship, but she had to leave after the stock market crashed in 1929 and funding dried up. She transferred to the University of Illinois to study political science and law. There she met John McCollum, a horticulture professor, and they married in 1933. She left school and they had three sons, James, Dannel, and Errol. McCollum returned to the University of Illinois later to obtain her master's in mass communications.

When her eldest son James entered fourth grade, he encountered religion classes that had been instituted several years earlier at his school, which was in the district of Champaign, Illinois. Although the classes were ostensibly voluntary, pressure was put on him to attend. After a time he refused, after which he was put at a desk in the hallway usually reserved for unruly students during religion class. Vashti took the matter to the superintendent of schools, and when nothing came of her complaint, she secured funding and legal counsel. On June 11, 1945, she filed a lawsuit to bar the classes in what would become a watershed church-state case, McCollum v. Board of Education.

The case went to trial in the circuit court of Champaign County. After months of deliberation, the court decided against the McCollums. The case was appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, where a second loss occurred, and ultimately went to the US Supreme Court. On March 8, 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that the school district's religious instruction program was unconstitutional.

"The First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other in its respective sphere," Justice Hugo Black wrote in the 8-1 majority...

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