Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education

At issue in Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) was the constitutionality of released time for religious instruction in public schools. McCollum dealt with the power of a state to utilize its tax-supported public school system for religious instruction. The Court found that this usage violated the Establishment Clause not only because the school property was used for religious classes but also because school officials and the clergy teachers had a close working relationship. The role of religion in public schools is a subject of continued debate with advocates and opponents. McCollum is important because it helped to set guidelines for permissible and acceptable parameters for the role of religion in public schools.

Facts of the Case

In 1940, members of different religious faiths formed the Champaign (Illinois) Council on Religious Education, a voluntary association, to provide religious instruction at no cost to the school district. The school superintendent approved and supervised the religious instructors. Parents were given consent cards to sign permitting their child to take religious instruction in their public schools. Classes were taught by Catholic priests, Protestant teachers, and Jewish rabbis in public schools during regular school time. The classes were one day a week, 30 minutes for lower grades and 45 minutes for upper grades. Attendance slips were given the religious instructors and absences were reported to the secular teachers in their regular classrooms.

McCollum, a resident, atheist, taxpayer, and parent of a child in the school system, claimed that her child, although not compelled to attend religious instruction classes, was embarrassed and humiliated as a result of their taking place. McCollum sued claiming that the released time program violated the Establishment Clause of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. More specifically, she believed that certain Protestant groups had an overshadowing advantage in propagation of their faiths over other Protestant sects. The plaintiff also noted that the religious program led to subtle pressures to force students to participate, and the school superintendent had the power to determine which religious faiths could participate in the program, because the state required compulsory attendance in public schools.

The Supreme Court of Illinois upheld religious instruction on the ground that state law granted the local board of education authority to establish such a program. The court was also satisfied that the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy were given comparable classrooms and treated alike. Moreover, there were two teachers of the Protestant faith; one was a Presbyterian, and the other was affiliated with a Christian church, worked in a Methodist church, taught at a Presbyterian church, and was married to a Lutheran.

The Court’s Ruling

On review, the Supreme Court noted that because Thomas Jefferson was concerned about dogmatism and authoritarianism in public schools, he supported a wall of separation between church and state. The Supreme Court thus found that the First Amendment erected a wall between church and state that must be kept high and impregnable. Accordingly, the Court found the released time for religious instruction program was unconstitutional based on the First and Fourteenth amendments.

Previously, in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947) the Court had ruled that the First Amendment’s purpose was not to cut off religious institutions from all benefits but to be neutral toward religion. The Court added that neither a state nor the federal government may set up churches or pass laws that aid one religion, all religions, or support one religion over another.

Courts have generally agreed that released time for religious instruction is permissible as long as programs do not occur on public school grounds. In fact, throughout American educational history, educators have relied on various alternatives to infuse schools with religion. Further, based on the increasing number of different belief systems and faiths, the nation has supported secular school systems. Not surprisingly, then, over the years, the courts have created a substantial body of case law to address issues of the role and place of religion in public schools. Pursuant to these cases, school boards must allow the use of facilities on a religiously neutral basis wherever open forums exist or are created under the federal Equal Access Act.

Many states have provisions for released time for religious instruction as long as parents approve of the participation of their children and the classes take place off of public school property; the Supreme Court upheld such an arrangement in New York City four years after McCollum in Zorach v. Clauson (1952). Of course, parents must furnish written statements attesting that their children are free to attend religious instruction on the designated days. Finally, each public school board reserves the right to refuse a student released time if grades are not sufficient for grade advancement or graduation.

James Van Patten

See also Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township; Jefferson, Thomas; Prayer in Public Schools; Religious Activities in Public Schools; Released Time; Zorach v. Clauson

Legal Citations

  • Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), reh’g denied, 330 U.S. 885 (1947). 
  • Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education of School District No. 71, Champaign County, Illinois, 333 U.S. 203 (1948). 
  • Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952).