O’Donnell has question on U.S. Constitution – where does it say separation of church and state?

October 19, 2010

Republican Christine O’Donnell has a question: where in the Constitution does it say separation of Church and State?

And she is genuinely amazed that the issue is addressed in the First Amendment.

The moment was captured during a debate at Widener Law School in Wilmington and quickly spread through the blogosphere.

The Tea Party favorite, who is trying to get elected to Vice President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat from Delaware, expressed surprise.

“Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” she asks.

The audience responded with laughter.

Her Democratic opponent Chris Coons said Donnell’s question about the separation of church and state “reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is, how it is amended.”

When Coons gives an explanation of the First Amendment and separation of church and state, O’Donnell responds: “The First Amendment does?”

A Washington Post blog points out that the phrase “separation of church and state” originated from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote, and that some conservative religious activists say the First Amendment does not call for the separation of church and state.

O’Donnell was also asked during the debate whether she would repeal the 14th , 16th or 17th Amendments, and she asked for a definition of the 14th and 16th. “I didn’t bring my Constitution with me.”

Photo credit: Reuters/Tim Shaffer (O’Donnell at debate at Widener Law School)

8 comments

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And this is what the tea party stands for? The election of their candidates like O’donnell, Miller, Angle
and Paul shows that this party is a complete embarrassment
to the country. I would love a third party, but not funded by the koch brothers and led by the likes of Dick Armey. I wonder what the republicans that were courting the tea party and supporting the likes of these fools are thinking now?

Posted by fromthecenter | Report as abusive

If you would actually read the Constitution, you would see that there are no such words “separation of church and state” in Amendment 1. It says that there shall be no establishment of religion (like the Church of England) nor shall Congress prohibit the free exercise thereof.

Posted by sgrddy | Report as abusive

Where does it say, “separation of church and state”? It says in effect: the government can make no law to “create” a religion or “force” you to accept a specific religion. You’re free to practice whatever religion you want. You’re also free to say, write, protest, or ask the government to right a wrong.

As we are all governed first by our own ethics, which to many are derived from religion, it would be impossible to separate church (religion) and state. O’Donnell should have explained that to Coons and the ignorant students at Widener Law School.

1st Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Posted by JonIcanread | Report as abusive

Um…it explicity says a separation of church and state.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – translated: Congress has nothing do do with religion or laws regarding establishing religion.

and “(Congress shall make no law)…prohibiting the free exercise (of religion) thereof” – meaning people have relgious freedom. Thus, Congress (the State) has nothing to do with religion (church). This separation could not be worded more clearly.

Posted by keegan | Report as abusive

Respectfully, since freedom from the Church of England was one of the reasons we separated from England in the first place, doesn’t it make sense that our Founding Fathers were referring to protecting people from being forced to accept the beliefs of any particular religion again? I don’t know of one person in America that is forced to be a member of a particular denomination, or any Church at all for that matter.

Also, if keegan believes the 1st Amendment means Congress can have nothing to do with laws regarding religion,(“Congress (the State) has nothing to do with religion (church),how could they have made a law specifically dealing with religion? It’s not possible to have freedom of religion and then turn around restrict where you can exercise it.

Posted by radiogaga | Report as abusive

The Constitution says a few other things explicitly – like Article I Section 8, or Amendments 2, 9, 10. But with regards to Amendment 1, Congress or the courts (the state as you put it) always have something to do with religion – especially if it is one that they don’t like.
There are many references to God in the founding documents, on the Capitol, our currency, etc.
I doubt that many would yell much about separation of church and state whenever President Obama, Clinton, or Bush says “God Bless America.” …Or when the House or Senate opens with a prayer. …Or that the military has chaplains too.

Posted by sgrddy | Report as abusive

The real issue here is that O’Donnell does not even have the familiarity with the Constitution that most public school educations ought to provide. I teach writing to elementary school kids, and THEY know about the first amendment. In fact, they can recite for you the entire Bill of Rights. Of course, it is a gifted program. Perhaps that’s too high a standard to be holding Ms. O’Donnell.

Posted by P_Taegel | Report as abusive

@P_Taegel
Well, I’m sure that your students know that there are less than 57 states, but that didn’t stop President Obama from getting elected.
Do your students think that the “free exercise thereof” includes letting some high school kid say a prayer at graduation or before a football game? What do they think about Amendments 9 and 10, and how they relate to Article I Section 8? If anything can fall under “interstate commerce”, then why delineate the powers of Congress at all? I’m just curious really.
Ms. O’Donnell is probably not a constitutional scholar. She probably does understand what liberty is though.

Posted by sgrddy | Report as abusive