The Woman Who Separated Church From State


Written by Paula Kamen

It’s not always easy to be ahead of one’s time. In 1945, Vashti McCollum, a mother of three and a part-time square-dancing teacher in Champaign, Ill. became one of the most notorious women in America when she sued the local public schools for teaching a class on Christianity. She received mountains of hate mail, her 10-year old son was beaten up in school and smeared in court as a “misfit,” and her husband’s university job was threatened.

But her unwavering efforts paid off. Three years later, her landmark Supreme-Court case, McCollum v. Board of Education, established the separation of church and state in public schools, leading to a more secular society overall.

A new award-winning documentary about McCollum, The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today, will air nationally through March on PBS. That’s just in time for Women’s History Month–and, more obscurely, for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which features the story of the rebellious, now-feminist icon Queen Vashti, after whom McCollum was named. (The fact that her name is Biblical is particularly ironic, considering the outspoken atheist views of her father, Arthur Cromwell, who had a Protestant background.)

I asked filmmaker Jay Rosenstein about this remarkable woman, whom he interviewed just before her death in 2006 at age 93.

Ms. Blog:  Vashti McCollum was no ordinary  small-town housewife. What in her background helped drive her?

Jay Rosenstein: I think it was three things. First, she had attended college … Cornell, an Ivy league school. That in itself was pretty atypical of women at that time.  Second, I believe her parents raised her with a strong belief in thinking for oneself; her father later became a hardcore “freethinker.” Third–and probably most importantly — it was just the nature of her personality. Vashti was the kind of woman who wouldn’t take any crap. Her son Dan described her as someone for whom “patience was no virtue.” When her oldest son Jim spoke about her at her memorial after she died, he titled his speech “My mother the Sarge.” That probably says it all.

I didn’t know until I watched your film that there were so many public schools in the U.S. introducing religious classes after WWII. What was the rationale, and how were they tied to patriotism? Why was it especially controversial at that time to stand up as an atheist?

This was the time when the “Red Scare” was beginning in this country, with the first anti-Communist HUAC hearings taking place. There was nothing worse at the time then being identified as a Communist. Because atheists didn’t have any religion, to say you were an atheist meant you were the same as the godless Communists, and [you were] treated as if you were a Communist.

I know that the film does not take an explicit political stance. But how do you think her case is relevant today?

Just [this week], presidential candidate Rick Santorum was all over the media with his comment that JFK’s pledge to absolute separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.” That’s just the very latest appearance of separation of church and state in headlines everywhere.

But the problem with these debates about separation of church and state is how few people truly understand what it means, and especially where it came from. Opponents regularly like to point out that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, which it isn’t. But it was the Supreme Court ruling in the McCollum case, the first case in U.S. history ever won based on separation of church and state, where the Court basically constitutionalizes the phrase. It should be a required civics lesson that everyone in the country learn that history, and it comes from the McCollum case.

As to Santorum, my comment is that if separation of church and state makes him want to throw up, then Vashti McCollum shoved the first fingers down his throat!

This post was originally published by Ms. Magazine.


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Separation of Church and State Makes Santorum Throw Up

Thou Shalt Display The Ten Commandments in Georgia Schools

No More Christian Proselytizing in South Carolina School District


Photo is a screen shot of the documentary The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today. To view the film trailer click here.


Kathy Perez
Kathy J7 years ago

yet now we are facing difficulties separating Church and State. Ridiculous. will it ever be a sure thing?

Samuel Williams
Harley W7 years ago

The People of GOD need to be concerned about how they show the love of GOD and act in love to others. Making laws that force others to follow the laws of GOD that deal with a day of worship seem to me more a way of focing our beliefs on others. Force is never to be a tool of chistians. We are to win by love alone. The church should not involve itself in politics.

Seventh day Adventists Love GOD love his earth and all people.

Ashley D.
Ashley D.7 years ago

'The powers-that-be are ordained of God .. he / she who resists the power (of the State) resists God' (St Paul's letter to the Romans, Ch 13).
Hence the UK having a Christian constitution based on God's word. Hence our Queen swearing on the Bible to '.. uphold the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel' (at her Coronation almost sixty years ago, in a Christian abbey, surrounded by representatives of the church and state) though her governments since that time have failed to help her do so by, in effect, legalising against God's laws. Eg, the Sunday Trading Act.

Norma V.
Norma V7 years ago

Separation of church and state....that makes sense.

Samuel W.
Harley W7 years ago

Christianity when practiced correctly is opposed to hate. The two basic principals of Christianity are Love GOD and love all others.

Those who advocate hate are opposed to Christianity.

Seventh day Adventist Love GOD his creation and love all others.

Nancy L.
Nancy L7 years ago


Sandi C.
Sandi C7 years ago


Isabel Ramirez
Isabel Ramirez7 years ago

Can't wait to see the documentary.

Ms Charlotte
Ms Charlotte7 years ago

Marxism proposes confiscation of property, nationalization of goods and services, and forced redistribution of wealth through a totalitarian government. The 'materialism' that you say is so important is the view that the human person is seen in strictly economic terms and valued by only what he can produce.

Karl Marx wrote "On the Jewish Question" in college which was so anti-semtic Hitler later on quoted from it word for word, and we all know how Communism turned out.

Who was it that wrote the 'Communist Manifesto'? - Oh right, that was Marx.

Kaitlin Carney
Kaitlin Carney7 years ago

Ms. C, I'm not sure what universe you live in, but Karl Marx died decades before either Lenin or Hitler were born. Marx did not encourage genocide, he only described what he saw happening in the industrial revolution. His theories on historical materialism are still relevant in social science today.
I feel sorry for the state of education in the USA when people cannot even describe historical narratives or the people in them. I guess the FOX News effect goes for history too, make up what sounds good to you and that's how it happened and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty lefty.