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Harris's NEH Seminar Explores Principle of Separation

James F. Harris, Jr., Haserot Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, directed an NEH Summer Seminar in 2006 titled "The Principle of Separation of Church and State." Harris

Fifteen teachers, mostly high school government or history teachers, hailing from California to Maine, lived on campus for four weeks in July and attended classes in the Wren Building.

"The principle of separation of church and state and its role in a constitutional democracy is undoubtedly one of the most important themes in the history and culture of the United States, but it is also one of the most controversial and least understood," Harris said. "Issues involving questions about the proper relationship between church and state are currently in the news. Almost daily, court rulings and challenges to those rulings, clashes between individuals and various public officials--even Congressional hearings and debates over Supreme Court nominees--have all served to focus attention of the informed populace on church-state relations."

Harris' career at William and Mary has spanned over three decades, from serving as associate professor of philosophy to department chair. He has published three books, dozens of articles and other works on the analytic philosophy of religion. Indeed, he has taught and written on the philosophy of religion his entire career.

In the past five or six years, however, his career has been concentrated more exclusively on public/civic life versus private/religious life and the questions surrounding those two spheres of one's life. So Harris was particularly delighted to win this opportunity to direct a NEH Summer Seminar - a first in his distinguished career.

Harris' four-week seminar focused on differing perspectives on four major aspects of the principle of separation of church and state. The focus of the first week was on the historical and political environment surrounding the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights and the early years of the republic. Special attention was given to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the roles of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. During week two, the discussion centered on "The Philosophical Basis for the Principle," and explored the Enlightenment and the philosophical origins of the American Revolution.

"The Principle and Current Events," during week three, included cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court involving religion and the state, including a celebrated 1879 case concerning polygamy and the Mormon Church. Harris said from this case until the present day, Jefferson's "wall of separation" has been at the heart of many important court cases determining exactly how and to what extent the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to religious freedom on the state level. The final week was devoted to "The Extrapolation of the Principle to Developing Democracies and World Religions."

Summer seminars and institutes are offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to provide senior faculty members an opportunity to enrich their understanding of significant humanities topics. In addition, these seminars enable the participants to return to their classrooms with a deeper knowledge of current scholarship in key fields of the humanities.