When you think of activists for the separation of church and state you probably think of Madalyn Murray O’Hare–the founder of the American Atheiest movement who was murdered in 1995 in Austin, Texas (one of my former hometowns…In fact, I recently learned that I rented a storage unit in the same complex that the O’Hare’s stolen gold coins had been stashed)…
But before Ms. O’Hare there was another woman who fought for the separation of church and state…and that woman, Vashti McCollum (shown to the right), has an unexpected connection to Columbia County…and as we are coming up on the one year anniversary of her passing, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit Vashti’s story.
Vashti Cromwell McCollum (November 6, 1912–August 20, 2006) was the plaintiff in a landmark 1948 Supreme Court case that struck down religious education in the public schools. She had been born and raised in New York…Her father, a disabled World War I vet, was an architect and an atheist who successfully lobbied the state of New York to end religious classes in public schools there…Vashti moved to Champaign-Urbana in order to attend the University of Illinois…there she met Dr. John P. MCCollum, a professor of horticulture, whom she married in 1933.
James McCollum (shown to the left), the first of Ms. McCollum’s three sons, was in fourth grade in a Champaign school when he was required to take religious classes during school. The classes were held on campus, were taught by a former missionary to China, and were mainly a Protestant program…Ms. McCollum, of course, did not approve and fought a long battle in the courts…the US Supreme Court eventually agreed to hear the case, and on March 9, 1948, it delivered an 8-to-1 decision saying that the religious education classes in Champaign’s public schools violated the constitutional provisions for separation of church and state.
Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black stated that “The First Amendment has erected a wall between the church and the state which must be kept high and impregnable.” According to James McCollum “the significance of the decision was that it was the first case of impression that held the several states accountable to the strictures of the establishment of religion clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution under the aegis of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.” All cases, involving school prayers, aid to parochial schools, sectarian religious displays on public property and other such incursions into Jefferson’s wall of “separation of church and state” by the states and their municipalities, descend from this case.
The McCollums have historical connections to southwestern Arkansas and Columbia County (The family name is listed in the Goodspeed’s History in 1889)…and James McCollum, the child that Vashti acted on behalf of, has returned to the area…Jim, a retired lawyer, now lives in Emerson just south of Magnolia. He is an employee of SAU, a student in the Agricultural program and he remains active in Americans United for the Separation of Church and State…He and his wife (who, interestingly enough, teaches religious studies at SAU) have become friends of mine…hell, Jim was even my sponsor into the Magnolia Rotary.
On last thing…Jim is fond of pointing out that Vashti was named for the queen of Ahasuerus in the first book of Esther who was one of the few biblical women to stand up for women’s rights. I think that’s a pretty cool fact.
Check out the brief biography of Vashti written by Jim here: