Filmmaker Examines History Behind Separation of Church and State

By Chanel Kong
Posted on April 30, 2011

The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today airs this May on Public Television and tells the compelling story of the woman behind the Supreme Court’s landmark First Amendment case that set the foundation for the separation of church and state in public schools. ITVS’ Chanel Kong caught up with director Jay Rosentein to discuss the film.

What inspired you to make this film? Initially, it was a reprint series that the local newspaper did of famous front pages and one of them was of the front page from the day Vashti McCollum won her case, with a headline that read "Court Upholds Mrs. McCollum.” I had heard over the years that there had been a famous Supreme Court case brought by Dan McCollum's mother — Dan was the mayor of Champaign, IL at the time — but the headline really grabbed my attention.

So I decided to look into it.  I had no idea what the case was about, or even if Vashti was still alive.  I found her phone number in the phone book, called her up, and there she was! But the real inspiration kicked in when I learned exactly what the case was about -- stopping religion classes from being taught in public schools, which is a subject I am very passionate about. 

How has the significance of the McCollum case evolved over time in its reach and influence? McCollum still remains as a profoundly important case in American history.  The First Amendment begins with the words "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” commonly referred to as the "establishment clause", and all these church and state decisions are based on that clause.  The McCollum decision is the very first time in American history the Supreme Court found a violation of those words.  It's also the first time the Court stopped a religious activity from taking place in a government institution. This case, combined with the Everson case that preceded it, marked a huge shift in the public's understanding of the concept of separating religion from government.  Although it took some time, the Everson and McCollum rulings had a massive and earth-moving influence on public opinion.  And as legal scholar David Meyer notes in the film, that change is still being felt today.


What were your goals in making this film? I had several goals.  One was to bring the story of the McCollum case and decision to the public's attention so it could take its rightful place in American history.  The second was to teach the American public exactly where the phrase "separation of church and state" came from and how it became part of our legal lexicon.  And the third is to show that behind all of these legal cases — which appear simply as a few lines in a legal textbook — are real people and families who fought great struggles and sometimes paid terrible personal consequences to create these legal precedents.  

You conducted extensive interviews with the McCollum family – Vashti, the mother, and her sons, Jim and Dan.  They have gone through so much public scrutiny over the years and yet persevered with their strength and resilience.  What were your impressions of this extraordinary family? My first impression is that they must have discovered the fountain of youth, because they all look and are so young for their ages!  But they are all tough as nails, especially Vashti. One of the main reasons that a group from Chicago was willing to finance her case — she couldn't possibly have afforded it herself -- was because they felt she was strong enough to see the case through to the end.  That was a major concern they had, knowing the kind of outrage and hatred the plaintiff of such a case was going to endure.  But her sons knew her best, and at her memorial, her son Jim titled his speech "My Mom The Sarge."  That probably describes her best. 

Your documentary showcased a lot of archival material, including images, footage, as well as key passages from news clips and case opinions.  Tell us about researching and finding archival material for your film. It was a difficult process, simply because there is actually very little archival material related to the case.  That was one reason why I was initially hesitant to take on this project.  For starters, there are no moving images of any kind directly related to this story or case. The courts in Illinois don't allow moving images to be recorded, and neither does the Supreme Court (although they do audio record the oral arguments now).  Even the McCollum family didn't take home movies!  Then only about a dozen photos existed from the trial.  That was it, my entire visual palette.  Why I decided to move forward on making this a film is still a mystery to me! As far as research goes, it is a time-consuming, tedious, and often mind-numbing process.  For one entire summer I spent everyday at the Champaign County Historical Library.  I would arrive every morning 15 minutes before they opened to get in line (of course, there was never actually a "line") to use their one microfilm reader that could do scans to a digital file.  That's the glamour of documentary filmmaking right there — waiting outside for the public library to open every morning! Despite all that, documentary filmmaking for me is like getting a passport to examine some slice of life in amazing detail.  That's the coolest part — if you're into that type of thing. 

Find more information about the McCollum case on the film’s website.  You can also read more about the case in Vashti McCollum’s book One Woman’s Fight and Dan McCollum’s book The Lord Was Not On Trial.


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