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McCollum v. Board of Education, School District 71 (1948)

Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Background Information

This case addressed the questionable practice of "released time" which was used as a method of teaching religion.

In 1940, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and some Protestant groups formed the Champaign (Illinois) Council on Religious Education. In association with the Champaign Board of Education, they provided voluntary classes in religion to public school students in grades four through nine. In order to participate, a student needed to have a permission slip signed by parents.

Classes were held during the school day and students could choose which denominational studies to attend - with Protestant ministers or Roman Catholic priests (a Jewish rabbi was also invited, but he declined after realizing the potential implications).

Children not participating were forced to go elsewhere in the school for secular studies, but they were not actually given any regular academic instruction because this would have put them ahead of their religious counterparts. Attendance in religious classes was recorded and reported to teachers, as was the non-participation of non-religious students.

Mrs. Vashti McCollum was an atheist and a mother of a student in that school system who complained that the program violated the separation of church and state and, specifically, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Court Decision

By a 6-1 vote the Supreme Court agreed with Mrs. McCollum and invalidated the practice of having religious education in public schools during the school day.

First, by using tax-established and tax-supported public schools to teach religion to students, the government aided these groups in the spreading of their faiths. Second, because students were required by state truancy laws to go to school and attendance was monitored by state officials to make sure that children were either in religion classes or study hall, the program effectively created a "captive audience" for the clergy. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in his majority opinion:

Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religious classes. This is beyond all questino a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith. ...Here not only are the State's tax supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the State's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.

Contrary to the arguments from the school board, refusing to "aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideas does not...manifest a governmental hostility to religion or religious teaching."

It was not relevant that students were not forced to participate in the classes or that parental permission was required. The important point wsas that the religions received a benefit by being offered the venue through which to spread their message.

Significance

This decision held first that refusing to assist religion should not be construed as hostility to religion and second that such refusal is part of the doctrine of separation of church and state. This decision is not well known in comparison to other cases, but it made use of very important principles which would keep coming up again and again in future church-state separation cases.

More importantly, this case established that the First Amendment (with its clause prohibiting an establishment of religion by the government) applied to the states through the due process clause ofFourteenth Amendment. Without the ruling in this decision, state governments would not be bound to abide by the seapration of church and state.

Many thanks to James McCollum, son of Mrs. Vashti McCollum and subject of the litigation here, for his help on getting the facts straight and on the explaining the case's significance.

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