When the House Judiciary Committee on March 5 approved the Religious Freedom Amendment barring the government from infringing on religious expression in public schools, 85-year-old Vashti McCollum thought she had won such a battle long ago.
It was five decades to the month that the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in McCollum v. Board of Education, prohibiting for the first time religious instruction in public schools.
"Ever since the decision was handed down, people have tried devious ways to put sectarian religion in the public schools and to get the public funds for parochial schools," says McCollum. "I think [the Religious Freedom Amendment] is designed to undermine the First Amendment of the Constitution."
However, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), who has been leading the fight for the Religious Freedom Amendment, says federal judges are the ones who are undermining the Constitution. "When prayer or religious expression occurs on public property, [judges] turn a blind eye to the fact that it's protected as free expression of religion." He believes judges are misapplying the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion. He says, "The same First Amendment that protects us has been turned upside-down and is used as a weapon against religion." His amendment, Istook believes, will restore full freedom of religion as originally intended.
McCollum's own case began in the early 1940s in Champaign, Illinois, where public school students thought nothing of saying the Lord's Prayer before assembly.
McCollum was a homemaker raising three sons when her eldest, 9-year-old Jim, came home and asked her for a quarter so he could take religious instruction in his public grammar school. The McCollums had never been church-goers, ...