“The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today”

That was a 1945 newspaper headline in Champaign, Illinois, quoting the local public lawyer, defending against a lawsuit claiming a church-state violation. It is also the title of a film which will air on PBS in May.

The town had a “released time” program, sending kids to religion classes. It was ostensibly voluntary and parents had to authorize their kids’ participation. Of course, this being America, everybody did. Except, of course – this being America – for one.

Vashti McCollum

Vashti McCollum was a young mother of 3 boys; the eldest, Jim, was being given a very hard time about his non-participation in the religious classes. She sued, claiming a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Cue the standard response of Christians demonstrating God’s love, Christian charity, and so forth – by pelting the McCollums with rotten vegetables, cursing them out by mail and phone, beating up the kid, dismembering their cat, and so forth.

The case was a sensation, billed as God versus Atheism. McCollum’s lawyer tried to show that the school program was promoting a single religion (Christianity), leaving out all others. They put young Jim McCollum on the stand to testify about the persecution he’d endured. The other side tried to show that his problems were not due to the religious education program, but to his being a weird messed up kid.

McCollum lost in the trial court, and in the Illinois appellate court. She appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The ruling came down on March 8, 1948. By 8 to 1, the Court struck down Champaign’s program as unconstitutional. It was the first time the First Amendment’s establishment clause had ever been applied to rule out a government-sponsored activity.

The discussion following the showing of the film included some of the predictable Supreme Court bashing. Some participants even feared the Court would rule the other way if the same case came up today. I think not. In fact, given how establishment clause law has evolved since 1948, the case would never get to the Supreme Court because a program like the one at issue would today be struck down out of hand. In fact, I believe that the modern Supreme Court has screwed religious believers far more than dissenters.

The film showing was emceed by Dan McCollum, Vashti’s second son. The town that had vilified and ostracised his family in the ‘40s elected him Mayor three times in the ‘80s and ‘90s. His older brother Jim went on to a successful life and career in engineering.

Vashti McCollum died, unrepentant, in 2006 at 93.


One Response to ““The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today””

  1. danyulengelke Says:

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Religious Documentaries Thursday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

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