Christine O'Donnell Unaware of Separation of Church and State

separation of church and state, first amendment

What do you mean separation of church and state?!

In a shocking exchange today, Republican candidate for Senate, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, “questioned whether the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation of church and state, appearing to disagree or not know that the First Amendment bars the government from establishing religion,” the AP reports.

In a debate in front of legal scholars and law students at Widener University Law School, O’Donnell’s opponent Chris Coons said, “private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism but that religious doctrine doesn’t belong in our public schools.”  (Something I’ve mentioned here on Strollerderby once or twice.)

O’Donnell’s reply?  “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”  Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, and O’Donnell responded, “You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?” to a gasp from the well-informed crowd.

Erin Daly, a professor of constitutional law at Widener, said O’Donnell “seemed genuinely surprised that the principle of separation of church and state derives from the First Amendment, and I think to many of us in the law school that was a surprise.  It’s one thing to not know the 17th Amendment or some of the others, but most Americans do know the basics of the First Amendment.”

I’ll admit, when I think of the First Amendment, I focus on the freedom of speech aspect of the clause rather than on the separation of church and state, but I’m well aware that the constitution guarantees us that socio-religious divide.  In fact, the Pilgrims we all learned about as U.S. schoolchildren who landed at Plymouth on the Mayflower came to “the new world” in order to escape religious persecution, thus implanting religious freedom as one of the tenets of early settlers.  I’m surprised O’Donnell isn’t at least aware of that.

But, to be fair, the U.S. education system is no prize, and I can’t explain all of the constitutional amendments to you according to number, either.  Then again, I’m not running for Congress.  O’Donnell also reportedly began the debate “by defending herself for not being able to name a recent Supreme Court decision with which she disagrees at a debate last week.  She said she was stumped because she largely agrees with the court’s recent decisions under conservative chief justices John Roberts and William Rehnquist.”

Rehnquist died five years ago.  Even I know that.  Looks like she doesn’t believe in separation of the bench and the afterlife, either.

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