McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948)
The eight-to-one Supreme Court ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education declared the use of public school time and property for devotional religious instruction to be unconstitutional. The legal precedent restricted organizations from using compulsory education for the dissemination of religious ideals. It also set the standard for the application and interpretation of the First Amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause in public school settings.
In 1940, members of the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities in Champaign, Illinois, formed the Champaign Council on Religious Education. This group struck an agreement with the board of education whereby public school students would receive religious instruction. The council provided rabbis, priests, and ministers to teach the classes; the school system provided the students. Parents received a release form on which they indicated whether their child should be given Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant instruction. Children whose parents did not consent to the program were given what amounted to an additional study hall once a week while the other students attended their respective classes. Vashti McCollum, a mother, taxpayer, and resident of Champaign, found this arrangement unacceptable. She filed legal suit against the school board for its approval of ‘‘released time’’ religious instruction as violations of her child’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court sided with McCollum after the case was argued in December 1947. Justice Hugo Black delivered the Court’s decision. He described the situation as the clear ‘‘utilization of the taxestablished and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.’’ The ruling denounced the school board’s arrangement as a violation of Jefferson’s famous ‘‘wall of separation’’ between church and state.
In fact, the Court had resuscitated the phrase when ruling on a closely related case only a year before. Justice Black also authored the majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947). In this case he referenced the ‘‘wall of separation’’ to ensure that New Jersey’s statutes did not establish a state church by denying parochial school children transportation on public school buses. Justice Frankfurter, who dissented in the Everson decision, further clarified the position of the Court in the McCollum case. He wrote that the wall of separation should remain a wall, not a ‘‘fine line easily overstepped’’ and declared it the role of the court to maintain this absolute partition.
This case is often overshadowed by more prominent decisions regarding church and state matters, but it has a judicial legacy of its own accord. Here, the Supreme Court first articulated that the state’s failure to assist a religious group is not tantamount to hostility toward religion. In addition, the McCollum decision is sometimes cited as an early example of ‘‘legislating from the bench,’’ or interpreting existing law so as to achieve unforeseen applications. However, the opinion of the Court offered in McCollum v. Board of Education provided a model for future jurisprudence and for the protection of religious freedom.
KEVIN JAMES HOUK