We’re at a point in our country’s history where Americans are so polarized, they have their own realities. These alternate universes collided last week during a debate between Delaware candidates for US Senate, Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons. The point of contention was the First Amendment and its oft misrepresented “separation of church and state.”
On HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher led off his latest monologue with the subject, displaying equal parts exasperation and delight. By his account, O’Donnell is vapidly ignorant of the Constitution.
Christine O’Donnell did not know that the First Amendment was in the First Amendment… Did you see the Christine O’Donnell debate? She’s debating her opponent, Chris Coons… and they were talking about the separation of church and state, and she said it didn’t exist. And Chris Coons, you know, quoted the First Amendment. “The government shall make no establishment of religion.” And Christine said, “That’s in the first amendment?”
This is a blatant misrepresentation of what actually happened. Even the cherry-picked account of the Miami Herald stands in contrast.
“Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” [O’Donnell] asked last week, drawing gasps and astonished laughter from an audience of law school students.
Chris Coons, her Democratic opponent for a Delaware Senate seat, replied that in asking the question, O’Donnell shows “fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is. … The First Amendment establishes the separation …”
O’Donnell wasn’t buying it. “The First Amendment does? … So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ is found in the First Amendment?”
O’Donnell’s point was clear. The First Amendment does not reference a “separation of church and state.” Furthermore, it does not say (as Maher attests) that “government shall make no establishment of religion.” It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The difference is profound. But don’t tell Maher that.
I find this outrageous, that we now have this debate over whether separation of church and state is really part of the fabric of this country. Yes, they are right. It’s such a tedious gotcha. The actual phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. But court rulings over the years have affirmed that this is exactly what the founders mentioned. And also, the founders themselves wrote it in different letters…
Yes, Bill. Scholarship, like other responsibilities, can be tedious. It is nonetheless essential to just jurisprudence.