The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today

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With the separation of church and state so much in the news these days — whether Rick Santorum’s “makes me want to throw up” attack on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association or the current debate over reproductive rights and varying interpretations of religious freedom — perhaps a little history lesson’s in order.

Which is just what’s provided by an award-winning documentary, The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today, currently making the rounds of public television. Different PBS stations have aired the film over the last year but it’s getting a re-launch on Friday, March 16, as part of Women’s History Month. Go to the documentary’s website to see if it’s being telecast in your area.

Written, produced and directed by Jay Rosenstein, and narrated by David Ogden Stiers (of M*A*S*H fame), The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today is the story of McCollum v. Board of Education, the 1948 Supreme Court decision won by establishing and affirming the separation of church and state in public schools.

Vashti McCollum smiles as she reads of her victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in her suit to bar religious eduction from the Champaign high schools. March 1948. (AP Photo)
Vashti McCollum smiles as she reads of her victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in her suit to bar religious eduction from the Champaign high schools in Champaign, Illinois, March 8, 1948. The Supreme Court agreed by a 6-1 vote with Mrs. McCollum and invalidated the practice of having religious education in public schools during the school day. (AP Photo)

Vashti McCollum was a mother in Champaign, Illinois, whose son was pressured into attending once-a-week “voluntary” religious instruction at a local public school. When she pulled him out of the class and sued the board of education, all hell broke loose. She was branded as “that awful woman” by neighbors, “that atheist mother” by newspapers around the country and smeared as a Communist — there was even an attempt in the Illinois state legislature to outlaw McCollum and her husband from ever again teaching at the local university. The son was subjected to so much bullying and abuse by other kids his parents transferred him to a private school in New York State. (The film’s title comes from a statement made by the school board’s attorney.)

After what Mrs. McCollum described as “three years of headlines, headaches and hatred,” she was victorious in the Supreme Court, an overwhelming 8-1 decision that, as Jay Rosenstein writes, “shocked the nation and made the McCollums public enemy #1 of the American religious establishment.” The repercussions resonate to this day, from arguments over displays of the Ten Commandments in government buildings to Christmas manger scenes on courthouse lawns.

Perhaps the most direct, contemporary parallel is the case of 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, who recently filed a successful lawsuit to have a prayer removed from the wall of her high school auditorium in Cranston, Rhode Island. Like Vashti McCollum, she received threats, although these days they come from the Internet and talk radio. One state legislator called her “an evil little thing.” The New York Times called her “brave.”

Watch the trailer of The is Not on Trial Here Today:

Addendum: A new national survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service finds that 56 percent of Americans “do not believe that the right of religious liberty is being threatened in America today. Roughly 4-in-10 (39%) believe religious liberty is under attack.” Read the complete results of the survey.

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  • rex ackerson

    You have religious liberty to practice whatever religion you choose, but you DO NOT have the right to impose your religion on others.

  • Therese

    When people say “religious liberty is under attack” they mean THEIR religion. If we read about Eastern religions, study Sacred texts other than the Bible, people of fear see this as dangerous to them. Only when people leave the field of fear and open their hearts will we see Truth and Liberty rise again–the war on women is also manufactured out of fear. As Tiny Tim would say, “God bless us every one.” We need it.

  • ydnic10

    take note Santorum

  • GradyLeeHoward

    But what would our current throwback Supreme Court decide?
    And would the People then bow to backward Christian Theocracy?
    Gilead here we come! (Handmaid’s Tale)

  • Corey Goodall

    Sure feels like America is getting its own version of the Taliban while the Afghanistan Taliban is getting ready to re-take control.

  • Marta

    The Fundamentalist who favor Charter Schools intend to bring this action back again. We are moving backwards more quickly than you think and forced religion is on their minds,….dictator style.

  • Unorthodoxrebel

    With the overwhelming presence “God Bless America” bumper stickers and such, I always thought the same way as Tiny Tim.   Wouldn’t have been strangely unfair if Tiny Tim had said, “God bless Tiny Tim”…implying that the rest of the family are on their own when it comes to obtaining blessings.  So my motto would say “God Bless the World”, or for that matter, the Universe.

  • Patrick

    I just thank God,  I’m an Atheist.

  • Gardenia

    It is those Holier Than Thou Republicans like Santorum stirring the pot.  May Obama win by a landslide.  Hooray.

  • Karl Hoff

    What has organized religion done for me?  My neighbor had a full size cross tattooed on his chest and goes shirtless when he can to deliver METH. I must pay far more taxes because they pay none. I have lost many, many, many relationships with inlaws and friend because they shunned me. I fear that some day they will punish me if I use words like damn, hell or any words that because I believe different then them, I am not allowed to use. But, most important I must fear that organized religion may in the end gain enough opposing people of faith that they will annihilate the entire World.  And what will I be doing then?  I will pay my taxes, hunt down meth addicts and work to stop them without harming them and most importantly I will state my beliefs, but  never shun anyone or be cruel to anyone because they believe different than me.  

  • Anonymous

    Be careful out there, Karl.

  • Anonymous

    But ain’t he a muslin? Some state legislators in NC think so.

  • Anonymous

    I heard Fascist Christianity was under “refudiation.”

  • Karl Hoff

    Thanks for your concern. I live in a state that has gone from one of the lowest crime rates in the last 20 yrs. to having the biggest drug problem in the US. If a small mother like Vashti can take on the powerful and win, there is nothing to stop me from trying to reverse some of the statistic here. In some hospitals in this area, over half of the new born babies are born addicted to drugs, 70% of murders and 85-90 % of thefts are drug related. One county here had someone on the news that estimated that about 85% of their community was on meth and other drugs.  Since the conversion to electronic utility meters they have gotten free utilities and what it takes to catch and stop them may take many years because they will unplug the meters at night and put them back during the day and because the meter reader no longer has to walk up to the meter, it makes detection nearly imposible and they make up the money they have to pay by getting help from people donating through their utility bills and other ways. They use every conceivable government and charitable organization known. They drive vehicles with no licence, no inspection, no registration, no insurance, and in one case no windshield and run them on stolen gas. Who’s bears the most blame? As long as they can get the pharmaceutical drugs needed to make meth they will never be stopped because just like moonshiners, they can get the rest anywhere.

  • Dennisleek

     I wish the people who don’t believe in God would just ignore us people who do believe in God!  We all have a right in this wonderful country of ours to believe what we want to.  Why does that bother atheists and non-believers?  If they don’t change, there is a place waiting for them when they “pass on” and it starts with an “H” and only has four letters!

  • 19obert63

    Just click on to the speech by Kennedy at Houston and then try to listen to Santorum, the only sickening I feel is how much we have lowered the bar in our search for a President.

  • Karl Hoff

    Thank you for your thoughts on a difficult subject. I am one that has a strong belief in God, but because the God I worship is the Sun, air & Earth, which creates all life and when we die our bodies and all other living thing returns to the Earth to create new life. I have never met anyone that is a non-believer. Some believe they just don’t know and others in evolution. If people that have told me I would be thrown in the lake of fire because of what I believe would only known how hurtful saying that is, they may know why I would never want anyone to go through that. People that know me, know that I took a long time to find a belief that gave me peace without threating anyone or kill them or hurting them in any way. I became a vegetarian in 1974 because I could no long stand to see animals die to feed me. I am a passivist that has never owned a gun and have devoted my life to try to make the World a better place for all. Also I am known a a relentless preacher, just like many that write here. Again thank you very much for your thoughts. 

  • Curiouskas

    I believe British magistrate Justice Law said it best,

    “We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.

    The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the state, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

    In a free constitution such as ours there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content . . . the conferment of any legal protection of preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however long its culture, is deeply unprincipled.”

  • charlie

    my bumper sticker  God Bless the whole world NO  exceptions

  • Washburn

    The question of
    reproductive rights is making strange bedfellows. Evangelical Christians
    (‘evangelical’=proselytizing) have a doctrinal agreement with Catholic hierarchy
    against the Catholic laity. But the founding idea of Protestant religion is a
    repudiation of Vatican authority, if not of all religious hierarchy. But what
    the Catholic church is demanding is not religious liberty, but religious
    authority. The law makes no demand that anyone actually use a proscribed medical
    procedure, merely that employees of church owned services, primarily secular in
    character, if they offer insurance, must cover those procedures. The church is
    demanding the government grant a waiver in this so that it can exert authority
    over its membership, and its non-member employees. This is not a question of
    religious liberty but of religious authority, and the First Amendment is written
    precisely to protect religious liberty against religious authority. Religious
    liberty is a matter of individual conscience. There is no collective religious
    liberty any more than there is a collective conscience. It might be argued that
    some degree of protection must be extended to churches in aid of protecting this
    right, but such an extension of the principle of individual religious liberty is
    not an inalienable right.

  • Washburn

    Perhaps you would be surprised to learn that Britain has an established church, supported by taxes? It is precisely this circumstance that the framers of the Constitution were thinking of when they offered religious liberty in the First amendment. Oddly, it was the Baptists of the day that were most insistent on the separation of church and state, and it is they who are most insistent upon a declaration of our being a ‘Christian’ country now. The point is the issue is shot through with hypocracy and contradiction.

  • Anonymous

    Does the addition of the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance come form the fear of Communism? Was it Communists rather than Communism that had a problem with religion?

  • Theresa Riley

    Grosskoff: There’s a great explanation of the genesis of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in this NYT Campaign Stops Blog post:

  • Anonymous

    The right wing fundamentalists are blind to the fact that separation of church and state is the very foundation for religious freedom. Most Jewish groups readily recognize this fact. When right wing fundamentalists promote injecting religion into government, they are really saying they (like anyone else would) want “their” religion to be in control of government. This can be immediately exposed by simply asking how much religious control over government do they believe Muslims should be permitted?