This month — Women’s Month — we are given a chance to consider the powerful human story behind the story of the fight that led ultimately to the Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling in 1948 that provided the framework for the contemporary principle of separation of church and state. It is a story that is beautifully rendered in the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning documentary, “The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today,” which airs on PBS stations in coming days and weeks. (Check local listings.) It is a story you might expect to be embraced by politicians who advocate the right of individuals to be free from government interference in their most intimate affairs, including their beliefs.
While the constitutional basis for the “wall of separation” is meticulously unpacked in the documentary, the issue is all the more compelling because of the way we see it play out in this narrative. For, at its heart, this is a mother’s story, the story of Vashti McCollum, who in 1945 embarked on a three-year legal odyssey — marked, she said, by “headlines, headaches and hatred” — ultimately leading to vindication of her beliefs and, as important as anything else, her fifth-grade son, Jim.
At a time when it seemed few in McCollum’s conservative Champaign, Illinois community dared to question the connection between American ideals and patriotism, between patriotism and religion, between religion and Protestant Christianity, in that rush-to-judgment world, McCollum hit the “pause button.” Stop for a moment. Think about it. Think about it critically. Organized religious activity in public schools is unconstitutional. And for good reason.
“The constitution says government institutions can’t play favorites with religion,” notes the film’s award-winning writer-producer, Jay Rosenstein. “That’s really what the establishment clause says to me: all religions and non-religion have to be treated equally by the government,” says Rosenstein, associate professor of journalism and a colleague of mine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It wasn’t until someone like Vashti McCollum stood up, went through all this financial hardship, emotional hardship, physical hardship, that that right suddenly got applied to the rest of us.”
By Janice Rael on March 18, 2012