Vashti McCollum

Humanist campaigner
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The Independent Online

Vashti Ruth Cromwell, campaigner and writer: born Lyons, New York 6 November 1912; married 1933 John McCollum (deceased; three sons); died Champaign, Illinois 20 August 2006.

Vashti McCollum took on the US establishment in the 1940s in a brave campaign of conscience that was to end in a landmark ruling upholding the separation of church and state. It took a long, hard, often dirty, three-year struggle in a moral and political climate where the US religious and political right equated humanism with Communism.

Arthur and Ruth Cromwell named their daughter Vashti, born in 1912, after the queen who defiantly refuses to disrobe and dance naked for her husband, Ahasuerus, in the Old Testament's book of Esther. Growing up in the freethinking family home in Rochester, New York, instilled questioning minds in their daughters. Vashti attended Cornell University until the 1929 Wall Street Crash before resuming her studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana from which she eventually graduated - with time off for marriage to one of the university staff, John McCollum, a horticulture professor, and childbirth - in 1944.

The McCollums had three children and her campaign was occasioned by their eldest son, Jim. Champaign's public school system was funding a programme of Christian education studies. The McCollums initially allowed him to attend before withdrawing their agreement on grounds of conscience and inappropriate administrative practices.

In 1945 Vashti filed a writ of mandamus - a judicial writ directing an individual or organisation to perform a public or statutory duty - in the Champaign County Circuit Court. It hinged on the flouting, financially, of the First Amendment's separation of religion and government. Supporting her were the local Unitarian minister and a group of Chicago-based Jewish businessmen dedicated to equality of treatment. It failed. Things got rough, even un-Christian, for the family. The backlash included school bullying, threats, the family cat's getting lynched and McCollum's losing her job. A challenge to the Illinois Supreme Court also failed.

In the autumn of 1947 a legal appeal to the US Supreme Court succeeded. It granted certiorari, in essence passing the case to the higher court. In March 1948 McCollum v Board of Education became a landmark in US constitutional law. Justice Hugo L. Black delivered the majority (8-1) ruling that the programme had been unconstitutional, based on the First and the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. He declared,

The First Amendment rests upon the premiss that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other in its respective sphere.

In short, the separation of religion and government was intrinsic to the US constitution. Four years later, however, the chipping-away began with a case that allowed religious education because it did not use public funds or New York school facilities. The moral echoes of McCollum v Board of Education still reverberate in an era of religious fundamentalism.

In 1951 Vashti McCollum published One Woman's Fight, her account of the proceedings. A revised edition in 1961 appended the text of the Supreme Court decision. The book is still in print.

McCollum came to call herself a humanist over the course of the court actions. A lifelong humanist, even before she knew she was one, as humanists say, she was elected to the board of directors of the American Humanist Association in 1952 and was their President in 1962-65.

Ken Hunt