In the wake of the Wren cross controversy, members of the College and Williamsburg community came out to hear Erwin Chemerinsky speak on the topic, “Why Church and State Should be Separate.” The event was the first in the Committee on Religion in a Public University Speaker Series, part of the mandate laid out by College President Gene Nichol during his State of the College address.
p. Chemerinsky, the Alston and Bird professor of law and political science at Duke University, is a noted constitutional law scholar who has argued several cases before the U. S. Supreme Court, including Van Orden v. Perry, the 2005 case about the display of the Ten Commandments on the lawn of a Texas statehouse.
p. Chemerinsky began his lecture by presenting an objective outline of the differing approaches to the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
p. “I thought he was really clear in the way he spoke about different perspectives,” Kate Perkins, a member of the Committee and a senior at the College, said.
p. Chemerinsky then went on to articulate why he prefers a “strict separationist” approach to church and state issues.
p. “I believe deeply that our government should be secular,” he said, identifying three core reasons for his argument: government alignment with religion makes others feel like outsiders, unfairly taxes people to support the religion of others, and coerces people to participate in religion.
p. Chemerinsky cited many recent controversies, such as debates about the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance and concerns of religious coercion in the Air Force Academy.
p. Chemerinsky then applied his philosophy to the controversy surrounding the removal of the cross from the Wren Chapel and its subsequent reinstatement.
p. According to LuAnn Homza and law school professor Davison Douglas, co-chairs of the sub-committee for the speaker series, Chemerinsky was the first to respond to invitations sent to names on a list drawn up by the subcommittee. The list was compiled with input from the president’s committee as a whole, as well as from the Religious Studies department and others.
p. “Professor Chemerinsky has given talks at William and Mary’s law school, but we asked him to be a speaker because of his expertise in constitutional law and in church/state issues,” Homza said in an e-mail.
p. “I think the rational aspect of his talk was very helpful to the situation,” Paul Brockwell, a senior religious studies major in attendance at Chemerinsky’s talk, said. Brockwell is already planning on going to the other lectures in the speaker series.
p. The next speaker will be author Os Guinness, appearing April 12. Homza said that a conscious effort was made to balance the perspectives of the various speakers, and Perkins expressed confidence that next week’s lecture will be “pretty obviously opposite.” May 1, Regent University Law Professor Steve Fitschen will be the series’ third speaker.