Marshall-Wythe School of Law Dean Dave Douglas gave a presentation on the separation of church and state in the Sadler Center Chesapeake room Thursday.
The talk, hosted by the Christopher Wren Association, was divided between a description of the ambiguity of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitutional view of the Founding Fathers, and an explanation of how the establishment clause is interpreted today.
“My goal is not to tell you what the correct view [of the separation of church and state] is, but rather to educate you so that you have a sense of what the debate is regarding the Supreme Court,” Douglas said.
The establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, together with the Free Exercise Clause, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is the main piece of evidence cited by those who argue for the separation of church and state.
Douglas argued that strict interpretation of the Constitution is difficult, due to the fact that the Constitution was deliberately written to be general. Douglas said the founders disagreed about certain aspects of the document, so compromise language was used in many parts of the Constitution.
“The Constitution, particularly the most debated parts, is written in largely indeterminate and non-specific text,” Douglas said. “As we look at constitutional text and interpret it, it’s a hard thing to do because it’s written with such a high level of generality.”
Douglas’s description of the founders’ era involved discussion of three beliefs that were widely held at the time.
The first, the Enlightenment view, was supported by Thomas Jefferson and argued that the church had a corrupting influence on the state. According to Douglas, Jefferson eventually abandoned the College of William and Mary in 1790 because he saw too great a religious influence on the institution. The Civic-Republican view, backed by George Washington, sought a state that works well with the church. Roger Williams supported the Free Church-Evangelical view, which believed the state to be a corruption of the church.
Douglas then discussed current Supreme Court decisions regarding the separation of church and state. According to Douglas, the nine members of the Supreme Court are split into two categories supporting either the coercion view or the endorsement view of the issue, with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the deciding voter.
“Is something an endorsement of religion? Can the Supreme Court say some religious image is unconstitutional?” Douglas said. “It’s all about context.”