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Filmmaker's documentary tells story of groundbreaking church-state suit

Vashti McCollum
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Champaign News Gazette

Vashti McCollum, a young Champaign, Ill., mother filed a lawsuit against the Champaign board of education in 1945 that ultimately resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision three years later in her favor.

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9/29/2010 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Prayer in the schools, Ten Commandments in the courthouse, Christmas mangers on public property.

Jay Rosenstein
Journalism professor Jay Rosenstein has created a documentary film, "The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today," which tells the story of the groundbreaking church-state lawsuit. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The U.S. Supreme Court in recent decades frequently has been called on to rule in cases on the line between church and state.

But the successful case that preceded them all began in 1945 in Champaign, Ill. For it was there, in the waning months of World War II, that Vashti McCollum, a young mother, filed a lawsuit against the Champaign board of education in connection with a policy allowing religious instruction on school time and in school classrooms.

The eventual result was a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision that altered the relationship between religion and public schools.

In getting there, however, McCollum and her family had to face the hatred and derision of many in the community and across the country. She was deluged by hate mail and was labeled a communist, her oldest son was abused at school, and a bill in the Illinois Legislature threatened her husband’s job as a University of Illinois professor.

It’s all in the story of “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today,” an hourlong documentary by U. of I. journalism professor Jay Rosenstein. The film premieres at the Art Theater in Champaign and on WILL-TV during the next two weeks.

Narrated by David Ogden Stiers, who played Charles Emerson Winchester III in the TV series “M*A*S*H,” the documentary will be shown at the Art Theater, 126 W. Church St., at 7 p.m. on Oct. 7, as part of a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. After hiring Stiers, Rosenstein learned that the actor had attended Urbana High School.

The WILL premiere will be at 7 p.m. on Oct. 12. The station will broadcast the documentary again at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 15. Following the second broadcast will be a discussion on WILL hosted by David Inge, with Rosenstein and Dan McCollum as guests. McCollum is the second of Vashti’s three sons and a former mayor of Champaign.

“The Lord Is Not on Trial” also is scheduled to be broadcast nationwide on PBS in March next year.

The story’s local angle had obvious attraction for Rosenstein, who teaches documentary filmmaking. “It’s one of the few local stories that has had a really significant impact on American history,” he said.

But he also was drawn in by the nature of the case and by the individual at the center of it.

 “What I’m really drawn to are individuals who are courageous enough to stand up against the prevailing attitudes,” Rosenstein said. “Vashti clearly was a really tough woman. … I think once this started, there was no way that she was not going to see this thing through.”

McCollum was in her early 90s when Rosenstein interviewed her for the film. She died in 2006.

As told in the documentary, the suit arose from a common practice at the time, not only in Champaign schools but nationwide, in which public schools made class time and rooms available for a voluntary religion class taught by church-sponsored teachers.

McCollum, an atheist, had not allowed her oldest son Jim to attend, but he was the only one out of his fifth-grade class. As a result, he suffered beatings and other abuse from classmates, which she saw school officials taking no action to prevent.

When Jim came home one day crying after he had been forced to sit alone in the hallway while the religion class was in session, McCollum decided “never again” and took action to sue the school board.

The documentary takes significant time describing the local trial that resulted, showing how the tactics of both lawyers, combined with media coverage, helped make the McCollum family look like “a bizarre collection of atheist freaks” and turned the proceedings into a “circus.”

Time magazine even compared it to the Scopes “monkey trial” of the 1920s, Rosenstein said.

McCollum lost the trial and an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, but won 8-1 in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think what’s amazing about this case and what’s so significant about it … this is the very first case where the Supreme Court forbid any kind of religious activity by a governmental body,” Rosenstein said.

The first 10 words of the First Amendment, and therefore the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights, state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

And yet, a century and a half after the Bill of Rights was enacted, Rosenstein said, “the court had never said that anything was forbidden … until Vashti McCollum.”

Funding for the documentary came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through the Independent Television Service, as well as from the Illinois Humanities Council and the Office of the Chancellor at the U. of I.

Editor's note: To contact Jay Rosenstein, call 217-239-1546; e-mail jrosenst@illinois.edu.

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