New PBS Doc: An Atheist Mom Goes to the Supreme Court - and Wins

Imagine that you are a religious minority sending your child to public school, only to find out that the school has implemented a "voluntary" program of religious instruction that reaffirms the doctrines and creeds of the largely Christian community. Like most people, you don't want to make waves by challenging the views of the majority, so you allow your child to participate in this program, hoping that it will emphasize education, not indoctrination. Your child soon comes home with artwork and other materials, however, that indicate that the program is little more than a Christian Sunday school, having nothing to do with objective education and everything to do with instilling Christian beliefs.

Fed up with the blatant proselytizing, you advise the school that you do not want your child to participate in the "voluntary" program. Since it is conducted during ordinary school hours, not after school, and since your child is the only one who is not participating, the school must now decide what to do with your child while everyone else participates. To resolve this dilemma, the school orders your child to sit in the "detention chair," a highly visible seat outside the principal's office normally used for disciplining children who have been misbehaving, while all the other children participate in the religious instruction program.

The above facts, unfortunately, are not fictional. They are part of the story of the McCollum family of Champaign, Illinois, and they set the stage for one of the greatest church-state confrontations in American history. This story is being brought to life in a superb new documentary, called "The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today" that will begin airing on PBS in May.

The documentary, produced by Jay Rosenstein, tells the story of Vashti McCollum's struggle to defend her children - and the wall of separation between church and state - against majoritarian religious bullying, a fight that went from a small courthouse in Champaign all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The legal case culminated with an historic 8-1 Supreme Court victory for the McCollums, a landmark 1948 precedent that was the first case to successfully apply the Constitution's Establishment Clause to state action under the Fourteenth Amendment. (One earlier case, the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, had ruled that the Establishment Clause applied to the states, but nevertheless decided that the state action in question didn't violate that clause. McCollum was the first such case wherein the plaintiffs won.)

The McCollum family's victory infuriated religious conservatives, who had won every stage of the legal battle until it reached the Supreme Court. It also laid the foundation for many other church-state victories that followed, such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) which banned official school prayer, Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) which ended school-sponsored Bible study, and numerous others.

Rosenstein covers the legal chronology well, but the documentary's most compelling moments are those that recount the blowback experienced by the family, the senseless hostility directed toward them for standing up for their principles. Hate mail, intimidation, a mutilated pet, threatened careers, and other repercussions all flowed from their simple act of resisting public religiosity. Many of the good Christians of Champaign and America, it seems, weren't feeling very Christ-like.

The documentary is made priceless by the frequent inclusion of interview segments with Vashti, who was 92 when Rosenstein sat with her, and who has since died. Throughout the film viewers see numerous photographs of the younger Vashti, whose natural beauty shines through, and one can sense from those photos that she was probably an ordinary wife and mother and a reluctant warrior. The late-life interviews, where viewers get to see and hear the real Vashti, only confirm what one suspects. She's smart, to be sure, but far from a rabble-rouser and no more feisty than your typical 90-something. She conveys a sense that, had the school system been even slightly reasonable, she never would have been a litigant.

But having been pushed to litigation by the esteemed men of her community, men who showed her little respect and were dismissive of her concerns, Vashti took them to the mat and taught them a lesson. As a result, church-state law in America rests on a foundation built by the mother of three from Champaign.

Attendees at the American Humanist Association's recent annual conference got a special screening of the film, and the response seemed unanimous - this is one documentary that you won't want to miss, and that you'll want your kids to see.

And I'll add one post-script not mentioned in the documentary. Vashti also served as president of the American Humanist Association from 1962 to 1965.

(via "Our Humanity, Naturally") 

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Comments

most of us here just see religion as irrational. What makes you think that your god is true, and the other 2869 major gods which other civilizations have believed in to be false? Us atheists only believe in one less god than you! i leave you with this: http://nwso.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/napkin-religion.jpg
I just finished watching this documentary. I was flipping channels and the picture it painted of the public school system during that era caught my attention. It was hard for me to imagine a time when religious instruction was a part of public education. I am a Christian in my 30's. As I watched this documentary, I could identify with this student, who was ostracized because of his system of beliefs (atheism). It upset me to know that a young person was shamed at school because he chose not to attend a religion class that was supposedly voluntary. If Christians treated people this way, (and I believe that they did, for I have seen them do it since), then I cannot blame the public school system or the government for removing such programs. Christians, like all human beings, are very capable of taking a good intention and turning it into a selfish agenda. But I do want to point something out. As I said before, in I watching this documentary, I could identify with the ridicule this young man faced. I went to public school in suburban St. Louis during the 1980’s. By that time, at least in my district, religion was considered taboo in school. Among the students and even some teachers, Christian beliefs were ridiculed. At the university level in Missouri, attacks on Christianity were common by professors in lecture halls. I wonder what Vashti McCollum would think if she knew that today, in at least in one part of the US, young Christians are facing the kind of ridicule, both by teachers and by their peers, that her son faced. It has come full circle, in some places. I don’t bring this up to make any of the posters above out to the “the bad guys.” I only wish to make others around me aware that there is more than one type of Christian out there. And this one just read all your (seemingly) anti Christian posts. Another question I wish to raise…was the McCollum case not a fight for fairness and respect? As I read some of the comments above, I wonder, do you feel you are showing respect for others? Perhaps you have met Christians who do not live up to the example set by Jesus. I am sure that you have. But some of you seem to have no problem speaking disrespectfully about the faith of Christians as a whole, while others are happy to do so about Christians in general...a group of at least 2.1 billion worldwide. I don’t understand how this lines up with (and here I generalize based on the comments above) a belief system that seems to say “treat people fairly.” Christians are called to bless those who persecute them. As an adult, I hope to act with that kind of grace. I do hope each of you is blessed in some way this week. I know that by posting these comments you did not intend to persecute me, but rather, to simply share your thoughts, feelings, etc. To those of you who wrote regarding the Christians who offended you, my words are not intended as a further source of ire. I trust that you yourselves will at some point be brought back to the grace and respect that, according to what seems to frustrate you, I believe you surely ascribe to.
I just finished watching this documentary. I was flipping channels and the picture it painted of the public school system during that era caught my attention. It was hard for me to imagine a time when religious instruction was a part of public education. I am a Christian in my 30's. As I watched this documentary, I could identify with this student, who was ostracized because of his system of beliefs (atheism). It upset me to know that a young person was shamed at school because he chose not to attend a religion class that was supposedly voluntary. If Christians treated people this way, (and I believe that they did, for I have seen them do it since), then I cannot blame the public school system or the government for removing such programs. Christians, like all human beings, are very capable of taking a good intention and turning it into a selfish agenda. But I do want to point something out. As I said before, in I watching this documentary, I could identify with the ridicule this young man faced. I went to public school in suburban St. Louis during the 1980’s. By that time, at least in my district, religion was considered taboo in school. Among the students and even some teachers, Christian beliefs were ridiculed. At the university level in Missouri, attacks on Christianity were common by professors in lecture halls. I wonder what Vashti McCollum would think if she knew that today, in at least in one part of the US, young Christians are facing the kind of ridicule, both by teachers and by their peers, that her son faced. It has come full circle, in some places. I don’t bring this up to make any of the posters above out to the “the bad guys.” I only wish to make others around me aware that there is more than one kind of Christian out there. And this one just read all your (seemingly) anti Christian posts. Another question I wish to raise…was the McCollum case not a fight for fairness and respect? As I read some of the comments above, I wonder, do you feel you are showing respect for others? Perhaps you have met Christians who do not live up to the example set by Jesus. I am sure that you have. But some of you seem to have no problem speaking disrespectfully about the faith of Christians as a whole, while others are happy to do so about Christians in general...a group of at least 2.1 billion worldwide. I don’t understand how this lines up with (and here I generalize based on the comments above) a belief system that seems to say “treat people fairly.” Christians are called to bless those who persecute them. As an adult, I hope to act with that kind of grace. I do hope each of you is blessed in some way this week. I know that by posting these comments you did not intend to persecute me, but rather, to simply share your thoughts, feelings, etc. To those of you who wrote regarding the Christians who offended you, my words are not intended as a further source of ire. I trust that you yourselves will at some point be brought back to the grace and respect that, according to what seems to frustrate you, I believe you surely ascribe to.
I think family guy said it best "How very christian of you, do what i say or I'll hurt you."
A mutilated pet? How Christian is that? The problem with religion is not the concept of God, but the idiocies of the morons who use said god to control, manipulate and hurt others...and use this god to justify the horrid things they do.
alas the pitfall of democracy is that local government is carried about by people appointed by the electorate, even when those people prove themselves to be incompetent, unconstitutional, or logically void. Praise the Spaghetti Monster that the supreme court could rule against religious groups even when every previous court didn't (this kind of amazes me). We are all free to believe what ever doctrine suits us, but for public institutions to favor one over the other is horrendously unjust.
Separation of Church and state in the USA has long since been eroded away to nothing. Once upon a time, the country's motto was "e pluribus unum" meaning simply "out of many, one" a fitting sentiment for a country of such diverse background. I think things really started to go downhill for tolerance of beliefs around the time the motto was changed to "in god we trust" :/ It's heartening to hear that people are starting to wake up to the fact that the Christian majority has their country by the throat. I really hope things will start to change for you guys. I live in the UK and am a frequent visitor to the Southern states for work. I've lost count of how many times I've been made to feel very uncomfortable having to endure religious interrogation and often severe berating once I mention that I am an Atheist. Here in the UK, our head of state (the Queen) is the head of the Church of England yet despite this, I'd say the Uk is a far more tolerant and secular country in practice. Here, Religion is well separated from government and all faiths and beliefs, even those of atheist or agnostic are respected in law and in practice. Our politicians very rarely mention their faith, it's considered a very personal and private matter. Perhaps we'll start to see an exodus of people leaving the USA and heading to the UK looking for freedom from religious persecution. What a role reversal! :)
Separation of Church and state in the USA has long since been eroded away to nothing. Once upon a time, the country's motto was "e pluribus unum" meaning simply "out of many, one" a fitting sentiment for a country of such diverse background. I think things really started to go downhill for tolerance of beliefs around the time the motto was changed to "in god we trust" :/ It's heartening to hear that people are starting to wake up to the fact that the Christian majority has their country by the throat. I really hope things will start to change for you guys. I live in the UK and am a frequent visitor to the Southern states for work. I've lost count of how many times I've been made to feel very uncomfortable having to endure religious interrogation and often severe berating once I mention that I am an Atheist. Here in the UK, our head of state (the Queen) is the head of the Church of England yet despite this, I'd say the Uk is a far more tolerant and secular country in practice. Here, Religion is well separated from government and all faiths and beliefs, even those of atheist or agnostic are respected in law and in practice. Our politicians very rarely mention their faith, it's considered a very personal and private matter. Perhaps we'll start to see an exodus of people leaving the USA and heading to the UK looking for freedom from religious persecution. What a role reversal! :)
As always the religious reich has no respect for the law, common sense, or even human decency when it comes to forcing their views upon everyone. The arrogance of these people knows no bounds. Most of the problems of the world are, and always have been, caused by religion. For example, Northern Ireland, 9/11, the Middle East, and family planning clinic bombing in the USA. Then there were the crusades, the inquisition, and the dark ages. Get the idea? Humanity will never truly be free until the black yoke of religion is lifted by the clear light of truth and rational thinking.
How many years do we have to endure religious domination over the way we live. I as a jewish school girl, although now an atheist, during the war went to a convent, during prayers non religious pupils were allowed to go in to a rest room and read or draw.
Apparently the hard lessons we learned in Europe are completely lost upon American supernaturalists, namely, that when one group of supernaturalists thinks it has the right to enforce conformity to its favourite doctrine, the end result of allowing them to dwell in this fantasy is much misery and suffering, invariably meted out to those who dare to stand up to the bullies.

As a regular contributor to a rationalist forum (namely Rational Skepticism), I encounter this particular brand of ideological stormtrooper for doctrine on a regular basis. Indeed, I have been repeatedly schooling one of them with respect to the *actual* meaning of separation of church and state, as opposed to his duplicitous apologetic fabrications with respect thereto. In keeping with the precedents that have been set repeatedly in the past by others of his ilk, he pretends, wholly mendaciously, that said schooling has never happened, and continues to parrot robotically his patently false assertions, as if doing so will magically convert them from falsehoods into truth. This stonewalling tactic will be familiar to anyone who has had even the most tentative of dealings with certain brands of fundamentalist, and points to the dangers of allowing these people *any* of the vast panoply of privileges that they consider themselves entitled to, because they will abuse those privileges on a scale that would make even the most egregious of totalitarian dictators blanch at their blatant disregard for the rest of humanity.

In addition, the assertions that such people erect, when viewed under *proper* critical lighting, constitute nothing more than a gigantic whinge, a piece of petulant and infantile foot-stomping, to the effect that the nasty state won't allow them to usher in their theocratic nightmare, drag America kicking and screaming back to the 12th century, and start the warm-up for an anachronistic revival of Inquisitional religio-politics. These people are either unable, or, more likely, mendaciously unwilling, to learn the elementary concept, that statutes such as the Establishment Clause exist to keep *all* mythologies and their adherents out of the faces of the rest of us, and that their particular pet mythology isn't being singled out for special treatment, despite the specious braying emanating from these individuals that they are somehow being "persecuted". Preventing a group of manifest bullies from riding roughshod over the rights of others isn't persecution, and the sooner these people are taught this lesson in a vigorous manner, the better.

If you wish to see some of the supernaturalist duplicity I have alluded to above in action, you can do no better than visit this thread on the forum in question:

http://www.rationalskepticism.org/creationism/how-many-antievolution-bil...

The duplicity in question starts here, and continues in much the same robotically parroted vein throughout the thread:

http://www.rationalskepticism.org/creationism/how-many-antievolution-bil...

For example, the lie that fundamentalist views are being "censored" because the Establishment Clause prevents mythological assertions being taught as scientific fact in science classes, is rendered wholly false by FACTS from the real world. Such as the fact that fundamentalists have thousands of churches within which their assertions may be freely disseminated, have entire publishing houses devoted to propagandising for their doctrines, and are permitted to erect globally visible websites, maintained by organisations enjoying tax-free status, that are also well-financed and politically well-connected. The idea that this constitutes "censorship", is one of those lies that needs to be exposed as such, and exposed vigorously.

Feel free to drop in to the forum, and take part in the defence of reason, reality, valid science and proper concepts of human rights. :)
We are starting to go through this process in Australia (only a century behind...). Currently federal law states that RE 'may" be provided in schools but that the word 'may' is to be interpreted as 'must'. Students who opt out are not to be given any form of education during this time and usually end up sitting in a corridor while the other kids are doing colouring in and given candy (and a thorough brain-washing...) http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/backlash-as-god-forced-into-schools-20...
This sounds like the current situation in Poland: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/14/world/poland-s-public-schools-to-offer... It is true, as someone said above, give the Christians an inch and they will take a mile. In Poland, they also outlawed abortion.
Get ready guys because someone will probably be taking on this cause again in the near future. Never in my life have I seen more flagrant disregard for separation of church and state. If you give these in-your-face Christians an inch they will take a mile. All they have to get is a foot in the door of our schools in order to take away the rights of our children not to be proselytized. I home schooled my four children in order that they not to be unduly influenced by any group that attaches itself to the public school system. But there are still mothers out here who are willing and able to take on the government of the US to keep these groups out of the schools and away from their children, and they will prevail. Religion in the schools is a real problem here in the southern states and fundamentalism is rampant. I can't wait to see this documentary.
I feel sorry for you Americans, having to go through stuff like this.. Keep on fighting! :)
I fully expected this to be a contemporary story. Odd that it ain't. Religious hysteria is at a maximum again, since this happened. For the first time a president of the USA mentioned atheists in his victory speech, in November 2008. After that, it's all gone downhill, I'm afraid ...
Dannel McCollum (Vashti's son) later became a 3 term Mayor of Champaign. Her other son had to leave town for boarding school due to the atmosphere at his Champaign school during the legal battle.
What happened to "disqus" ?

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