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People & Ideas: Vashti McCollum

Vashti McCollum

Vashti McCollum and her son Jim

Vashti McCollum challenged the constitutionality of religious instruction in America's public schools. In the 1940s, students enrolled in Champaign, Ill., schools could receive voluntary religious education from Protestant, Catholic or Jewish instructors.

Despite the voluntary nature of the religious classes, students and teachers ostracized McCollum's son Jim for not participating. "I ran into a great deal of hostility at that school," he recalled. "I got into a number of scrapes. A couple of times kids followed me all the way home, harassing me. There was a time when the teacher set me out in the hall at a desk, which was usually for detention purposes, and of course I was there alone."

McCollum sued the school district on her son's behalf, but lost at the local and state level. Her family suffered public harassment for its views. "We had a cat that was lynched," says Jim. "My mother answered the door one time and was deluged in a shower of garbage."

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1948, and the high court ruled in favor of McCollum and her son. The case made McCollum one of the most prominent atheists in the country; she served two terms as the president of the American Humanist Association.

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Published October 11, 2010

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