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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Witte examines church, state distinction in history

Emory University law and ethics professor John Witte took a moderate stance on the separation of church and state Thursday as he discussed the relationship between government and religion in America during a speech at the Rockefeller Center.

Reading from a prepared text, Witte gave the audience an overview of the historical division between government and religion in America.

Arguing that the idea of separating church and state extends back to biblical times, Witte cited multiple biblical examples that, he said, set a precedent for keeping the two distinct.

"The Hebrew bible repeatedly commanded the Hebrew people to remain separate from the outside world," Witte said.

American law is also rooted in the separation of church and state, Witte said, which has directly resulted in the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.

The separation of church and state, however, was originally supposed to apply only to the federal government.

"Religion was, in Jefferson's view, a completely state and local matter," Witte said.

Most states applied the division of church and state, Witte said, with some taking it to an extreme level.

"Seven of the original 13 states, and 15 later states banned ministers from participating in state elections," he said.

The battle between political candidates over the separation of religion and government began almost immediately after the nation's founding.

"Adams' party accused Jefferson of being the Antichrist and the whore of Babylon," Witte said. "Jefferson's party accused Adams of being a Puritan pope."

The fight throughout much of the country's history has revolved around the divide between Catholics and Protestants, with Catholics traditionally pushing for closer relations between church and state, Witte said.

Witte invoked the landmark case of Emerson v. Board of Education, which extended the ideas of federal separation of church and state to the state and local level. The professor discussed how Justice Hugo Black, the case's decisive vote, had ties with the Ku Klux Klan, which supported the separation of church and state in part due to its anti-Catholic agenda.

Witte proceeded to argue a moderate stance on modern issues regarding separation.

"Individuals should exercise prudence in seeking protection from public expressions of religion by which they cannot abide," he said.

Witte advocated personal choice as the best way to deal with public displays of religion.

"Just turn off Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on your television," he said.

Such voluntary protections from religion, he said, prove much more effective than drawn-out court battles.

Witte used the question-and-answer time after his lecture to deal with the question of faith-based initiatives and religion in public schools, including the controversy surrounding the debate over whether to teach the theory of "intelligent design" in public school science classrooms. Witte then gave a list of examples showing how current legal precedent rules against the teaching of intelligent design.

"I don't see the current court changing, even if Alito is on board," Witte said.

Emory law students have selected Witte eight times as their most outstanding professor. Witte has also written a variety of books about Protestant Christianity's influence in the law.

The Dartmouth Lawyers Association and the Rockefeller Center co-sponsored the event as part of the William H. Timbers lecture series. Former Timbers lecturers have included a variety of federal judges and legal professors.