On this date in in 1948 the US Supreme Court published its decision in the case of McCollum vs. Board of Education Dist. 71. The issue in the case was whether the use of the public school system for religious classes violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In an 8-to-1 decision, the court held that a multi-faith coalition’s teaching about religion in school classrooms violated the consititutional prohibition of government promoting religion.
The case arose because Vashti McCollum, the mother of a child who was compelled to attend school by state laws, objected to her son having to attend 30-minute, weekly classes conducted by private religious groups in the Champaign (IL, US) public schools. The religious instruction occurred during the school day, and students who did not attend it had to go to another place in the school building for secular studies.
In his opinion for the majority, Justice Hugo Black quoted from an earlier case (Everson vs. Board of Education) to make the central point that using schools for religious purposes violated the separation of church and state:
Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. [n6] Neither can force or influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will, or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. [n7] Neither a state nor [p211] the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”
Thanks to Vashti McCollum, who brought the case on behalf of her son James, we live freer of the imposition of religious dogma by the US, state, and local governements. And thanks to the US SC for recognizing that religion should be a private matter, not one foisted upon people by their government.
Update: FFRF has an entry about the McCollum case for it’s “this day” feature; it’s nicely placed next to a recognition of O. W. Holmes’ birthday.