Champaign, Illinois has been a virtual breeding ground of people with special talents or skills due to the fact that it is the base home of the University of Illinois. A long list of notable and recognizable people have come from this area, including Roger Ebert, Bonnie Blair, REO Speedwagon, Ludacris, the founders of YouTube, Deron Williams, Dick Butkus…and the list goes on. One name that may not be so familiar to the general American household is that of Vashti McCollum. McCollum is not a Champaign native, but she managed to bring one of the most important cases in the history of education in this country to the forefront right here in Champaign in 1948.
In 1944, the McCollums learned of religious teachings that were occurring at their son, James’, public school. At first, they were fine with the idea of his opportunity to learn about other faiths. However, they soon became weary of the intentions of these classes upon researching the curriculum. As Vashti took issue with the school and the religious courses’ instructors, they were met with immediate resistance and ostracism. As this continued, McCollum decided to file suit with against Champaign’s school district in July 1945.
Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Ed. of School Dist. No. 71, Champaign Cty. became about what Vashti, and many others, felt was a breach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which provides that the state must remain neutral in terms of religiosity. Being that the public schools are primarily funded by taxpayer money, the breach seemed fairly obvious. Nonetheless, ostracism turned into violent threats and assaults against McCollum, as well as the loss of her job at the university.
However, the Supreme Court eventually agreed with McCollum once it heard her case and ruled in favor of the teachings being unconstitutional. This case was like several of its kind that presented the American people with an important precedent for the future of constitutionality. Though we have the freedom of (and from) religion in this country, we have to remember that no one religion is to be favored over another. Church and state are to be kept completely separated for historically-significant reasons and purposes. It is a simple right of man to live his life as he or she chooses; those of the courage that Vashti McCollum represented in the battle against the Champaign public schools is something, though we are not very familiar with, we cannot forget.