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
Case history
PriorPeople ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Ed. of Sch. Dist. No. 71, 396 Ill. 14, 71 N.E.2d 161 (1947); probable jurisdiction noted, 67 S. Ct. 1524 (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), 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.


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. [1]


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

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.

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:

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.

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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Dannel McCollum was the mayor of Champaign, Illinois from 1987-1999. He is the author of the book The Lord Was Not on Trial about his mother Vashti McCollum's landmark 1948 Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education, which struck down religious education in public schools. He also wrote the book Remembering Champaign County.


  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