Film review: The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today

A few days ago I watched an excellent hour-long Peabody-winning documentary with the above title that tells the story of the lawsuit brought by Vashti McCollum. The daughter of freethinkers, she and her husband, who taught at the University of Illinois, were not religious and the family did not belong to any church or send their children to Sunday school, which made them anomalies in the conservative religious community of Champaign, Illinois that they lived in in 1945.

She objected when her public school, like many schools across the nation, started providing religious instruction in school. Children could opt out and she did so for her oldest son Jim, then about 10 years old, even though Jim’s teachers and peers put pressure on him and resorted to bullying to get him to attend. The last straw for McCollum was when Jim had to sit in the hallway during the religious classes, so she sued to stop the practice entirely.

She lost in the local court and in the Illinois Supreme Court but won a landmark 8-1 victory in 1948 in the US Supreme Court that ruled for the first time that providing religious instruction in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the US constitution. This led to the steady elimination of such programs across the country. The court reaffirmed the important point made in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education case that the Establishment Clause did not merely require neutrality between various religious sects (as had been argued up to that point) but also required neutrality between religion and non-religion. This was a major decision that set the framework for subsequent interpretations of the Establishment Clause. I wrote about this case in some detail in my book God v. Darwin but this film fleshes out the story a lot more by including both including legal and personal stories.

The McCollum family paid a huge price for fighting their case. This was just after the end of World War II when anti-Communist feelings were high and atheism was equated with Communism. The local community, displaying fine god-fearing Christian values, ostracized the family, vandalized their home, sent hateful letters, lynched their pet cat, and beat up Jim so regularly that his parents ended up sending him to New York to live with his grandparents. Some members of the state legislature even called for the firing of her husband from his university job.

McCollum died in 2006 at the age of 93. The documentary has interviews with her a year before her death and you can see that she was a cheerful and defiant fighter to the end, recounting the events with a twinkle in her eye. After the victory, McCollum became a much sought-after speaker and was also president of the American Humanist Association. The film also has interviews with two sons Jim and Dan.

We atheists owe a debt to people like McCollum and her family who fought much greater prejudice against atheism than we encounter today, and paved the way for greater acceptance. In fact her own son Dan was elected later mayor of Champaign for twelve years, becoming the first atheist to occupy that position. Jim has been a long-time member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The entire documentary is available online and I can strongly recommend it.

The Lord is Not on Trial Here Today from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.