First Amendment flap: Was Christine O'Donnell touting 'tea party' view?

First Amendment and church-state separation were debated Tuesday between Delaware Senate hopefuls Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons. Her stance is akin to that of some tea party activists.

Robert Craig/AP/Pool
Members of the press ask Delaware US Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell questions after a debate with opponent Chris Coons at Widener Law School on Wilmington Tuesday, October 19.

Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell on Tuesday during a debate with opponent Chris Coons seemed to question whether the Constitution calls for a separation of church and state. So what’s her view of the First Amendment?

The First Amendment is the section of the nation’s founding document that deals with church-state issues, after all. The First Amendment reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."

To Ms. O’Donnell, it may be the second clause there – “prohibiting the free exercise” – that’s most important. That means the government can’t interfere with religion, she emphasized in remarks to National Review Online after Tuesday’s debate at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del.

To O’Donnell, that means, for instance, that public schools should have the right to teach intelligent design as a theory of how life on earth came to be, along with the theory of evolution.

The First Amendment “gives them the freedom to teach that if that’s what they want,” O’Donnell told National Review Online’s “Battle ‘10” blog.

Mr. Coons, along with many constitutional law scholars, likely would see that example the other way around. They’d say that intelligent design, which holds that the universe is best explained as the creation of some form of larger being, is a religious belief, not a scientific theory. Allowing it to be taught in public schools would be to favor one particular religion over another – something prohibited by the “respecting an establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment.

Confused? Let’s start from the top.

During Tuesday’s debate, O’Donnell and Coons were arguing over the teaching-of-Creationism thing when Coons said that one of the “indispensable principles” of the Founding Fathers was “separation of church of state.”

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” said O’Donnell in reply, drawing gasps from a crowd composed largely of law students and professors.

A few minutes later, Coons returned to the subject, saying the First Amendment establishes the separation between church and state.

“The First Amendment does?” said O’Donnell. “You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”

After the debate, O’Donnell did not respond to reporters asking her to clarify her remarks. Her campaign manager, Matt Moran, later issued a statement saying that she was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state. “She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution,” Mr. Moran said.

O’Donnell is not the only conservative Republican Senate candidate with "tea party" support who has raised the issue of what the First Amendment means. In Nevada, Sharron Angle has taken a point of view similar to that of her Delaware compatriot.

In an interview earlier this year, Ms. Angle said that Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father credited with originating the phrase “separation of church and state,” has been misunderstood on this matter.

“Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up between the church and the state precisely to protect the church from being taken over by a state religion,” said Angle to Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston. “That’s what they meant by that. They didn’t mean we couldn’t bring our values to the political forum.”

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