McCollum v. Board of Education

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McCollum v. Board of Education
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued December 8, 1947
Decided March 8, 1948
Full case namePeople of State of Illinois ex rel. Vashti McCollum v. Board of Education of School District № 71, Champaign County, Illinois, et al.
Citations333 U.S. 203 ( more )
68 S. Ct. 461; 92 L. Ed. 2d 649; 1948 U.S. LEXIS 2451
Prior historyPeople ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Ed. of Sch. Dist. No. 71, 396 Ill. 14, 71 N.E.2d 161 (1947)
The use of public school facilities by religious organizations to give religious instruction to school children violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Fred M. Vinson
Associate Justices
Hugo Black  · Stanley F. Reed
Felix Frankfurter  · William O. Douglas
Frank Murphy  · Robert H. Jackson
Wiley B. Rutledge  · Harold H. Burton
Case opinions
MajorityBlack, joined by Vinson, Douglas, Murphy, Rutledge, Burton
ConcurrenceFrankfurter, joined by Jackson, Rutledge, Burton
Laws applied
U.S. Const., Amends. I and XIV

McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948), [1] was a landmark United States Supreme Court case related to the power of a state to use its tax-supported public school system to aid religious instruction. The case was a test of the separation of church and state with respect to education.

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions. Each year it agrees to hear about one hundred to one hundred fifty of the more than seven thousand cases that it is asked to review.

The separation of church and state is a philosophic and jurisprudential concept for defining political distance in the relationship between religious organizations and the nation state. Conceptually, the term refers to the creation of a secular state and to disestablishment, the changing of an existing, formal relationship between the church and the state.


The case tested the principle of "released time", where public schools set aside class time for religious instruction. The Court struck down a Champaign, Illinois program as unconstitutional because of the public school system's involvement in the administration, organization and support of religious instruction classes. The Court noted that some 2,000 communities nationwide offered similar released time programs affecting 1.5 million students.

In the United States public school system, released time or release time is time set aside during school hours, typically an hour a day or a week, for students to receive off-campus private religious education.

Champaign, Illinois City in Illinois, United States

Champaign is a city in Champaign County, Illinois, United States. The city is 135 miles (217 km) south of Chicago, 124 miles (200 km) west of Indianapolis, Indiana, and 178 mi (286 km) northeast of St. Louis, Missouri. The United States Census Bureau estimates the city was home to 87,432 people as of July 1, 2017. Champaign is the tenth-most populous city in Illinois, and the state's fourth-most populous city outside the Chicago metropolitan area. It is included in the Champaign–Urbana metropolitan area.


The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, the mother of a student enrolled in the Champaign public school district.

Vashti McCollum American activist

Vashti Cromwell McCollum was the plaintiff in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education, which struck down religious education in public schools. The defendant in the case was the public school district of Champaign, Illinois; instructors chosen by three religious faiths had taught religion classes within the district's schools.

In 1940, interested members of various Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths formed an association named the Champaign Council on Religious Education. This association obtained permission from the Champaign Board of Education to offer voluntary religious education classes for public school students from grades four to nine. These weekly 30- and 45-minute classes were led by clergy and lay members of the association in public school classrooms during school hours.

Protestantism division within Christianity, originating from the Reformation in the 16th century against the Roman Catholic Church, that rejects the Roman Catholic doctrines of papal supremacy and sacraments

Protestantism is the second largest form of Christianity with collectively between 800 million and more than 900 million adherents worldwide or nearly 40% of all Christians. It originated with the 16th century Reformation, a movement against what its followers perceived to be errors in the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants reject the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy and sacraments, but disagree among themselves regarding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They emphasize the priesthood of all believers, justification by faith alone rather than by good works, and the highest authority of the Bible alone in faith and morals. The "five solae" summarise basic theological differences in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.

Judaism ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text

Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people. It is an ancient, monotheistic, Abrahamic religion with the Torah as its foundational text. It encompasses the religion, philosophy, and culture of the Jewish people. Judaism is considered by religious Jews to be the expression of the covenant that God established with the Children of Israel. Judaism encompasses a wide body of texts, practices, theological positions, and forms of organization. The Torah is part of the larger text known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and supplemental oral tradition represented by later texts such as the Midrash and the Talmud. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

McCollum, an atheist, objected to the religious classes, stating that her son James was ostracized for not attending them. After complaints to school officials to stop offering these classes went unheeded, McCollum sued the school board in July 1945, stating that the religious instruction in the public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment—the principle of separation of church and state in the United States. McCollum also complained that the school district's religious education classes violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The principal elements of the McCollum complaint were that:

"Separation of church and state" is paraphrased from Thomas Jefferson and used by others in expressing an understanding of the intent and function of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Equal Protection Clause Guarantee of law protecting all persons equally in the United States

The Equal Protection Clause is a clause within the text of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The clause, which took effect in 1868, provides "nor shall any State [...] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws".

Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which grants citizenship to everyone born in the U.S. and subject to its jurisdiction and protects civil and political liberties

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. Arguably one of the most consequential amendments to this day, the amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War. The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by the states of the defeated Confederacy, which were forced to ratify it in order to regain representation in Congress. The amendment, particularly its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) regarding racial segregation, Roe v. Wade (1973) regarding abortion, Bush v. Gore (2000) regarding the 2000 presidential election, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) regarding same-sex marriage. The amendment limits the actions of all state and local officials, including those acting on behalf of such an official.

In her suit, McCollum asked that the Board of Education be ordered to "adopt and enforce rules and regulations prohibiting all instruction in and teaching of all religious education in all public schools in Champaign District Number 71, and in all public school houses and buildings in said district when occupied by public schools".

The Circuit Court of Champaign County ruled in favor of the school district in January 1946, and upon appeal the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling.

Champaign County, Illinois County in the United States

Champaign County is a county in the U.S. state of Illinois. As of the 2010 census, its population was 201,081, making it the 10th-most populous county in Illinois. Its county seat is Urbana.

Decision of the Court

McCollum sought review from the U. S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case, taking oral arguments in December 1947. A number of religious groups including the American Unitarian Association, the Synagogue Council of America, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and the Baptist Joint Committee of Religious Liberty filed briefs in support of McCollum's position. [2] [3]

On March 8, 1948, the Court ruled 8-1 in favor of McCollum, ruling that the classes were unconstitutional.

In the majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, the Court held that

[The facts] show the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the close cooperation between the school authorities and the religious council in promoting religious education. The operation of the state's compulsory education system thus assists and is integrated with the program of religious instruction carried on by separate religious sects. Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released ... in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religious classes.

To hold that a state cannot, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, utilize its public school system to aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideals does not ... manifest a governmental hostility to religion or religious teachings. ... For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere.


The lone dissenting justice, Stanley Forman Reed, objected to the breadth of the majority's interpretation of the Establishment Clause and stated that an incidental support of religion should have been permissible with a more narrow reading of the First Amendment.

Subsequent developments

The Supreme Court's ruling remanded the case to the Illinois high court for relief consistent with the federal ruling.

The high court revisited the issue of religious instruction in Zorach v. Clauson in 1952. The 6 to 3 ruling in the later case held that a New York program allowing religious education during the school day was permissible, because it did not use public school facilities or public funds.

See also

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  1. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948). PD-icon.svg This article incorporates public domain material from judicial opinions or other documents created by the federal judiciary of the United States.
  2. Lieblich, Julia (18 May 1998), "Back to the Future?", Christianity Today.
  3. Dart, John (19 September 2006), "A pioneer figure in church-state rulings", Christian Century.

Further reading