Christine O'Donnell: 'Separation of Church and State' in Constitution?

Video of ODonnell, Coons debate on WDEL.
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Delaware Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell considers herself a constitutional originalist, believing that only rights and government powers enumerated in the document's text should exist.

She opposes a constitutional inferred right to privacy, which underpinned the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, and she believes Congress overreached its authority by requiring individuals to purchase health insurance as part of the new health care law.

And today, O'Donnell also took issue with the assertion that the Constitution mandates a separation of church and state.

In a debate at Widener University Law School, O'Donnell and Democratic nominee Chris Coons, clashed over whether teaching creationism in public schools would violate the First Amendment protection against government establishment of religion.

"The First Amendment ... establishes the separation -- the fact that the federal government shall not establish any religion, and decisional law by the Supreme Court over many many decades clarifies and enshrines that there is a separation of church and state," said Coons, a graduate of Yale Law School.

"So you're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?" interrupted O'Donnell.

"It is important for us in modern times to apply the Constitution as it exists today and as it has been interpreted by our justices," continued Coons. "And if there are settled pieces of constitutional law, like the separation of church and state, like the individual right to reproductive freedom that Roe v. Wade represents, that we've lived with and under for decades, in my view it is important to know that on my side you have a candidate who believes and supports those things and on the other side a candidate who's both unfamiliar with and ..."

"So you're telling me the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?" repeated O'Donnell.

"Government shall make no establishment of religion," Coons replied.

"That's in the First Amendment?" asked O'Donnell.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But it does not specifically state that there should be a "separation of church and state" as has been popularly construed.

After the exchange, the crowd of legal scholars and law school students began rumbling among themselves as the moderator for WDEL radio, which was hosting the debate, cut in for a station break.

Matt Moran, O'Donnell's campaign manager, said following the debate that O'Donnell supports the legal precedent for a de facto separation of church and state but was merely pointing out that the phrase itself does not appear in the Constitution.

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Christine O'Donnell Presses for Meaning of First Amendment

In recent years, the Supreme Court has moved away from the idea that the Constitution forbids all religious involvement in policymaking and government social programs, but the issue remains a point of debate.

In Supreme Court decisions, "the trend line over the last 10 to 15 years is away from separation and more room for government to get involved with religious groups," such as faith-based nonprofits and parochial schools, said George Washington University law professor Ira "Chip" Lupu, a constitutional law expert.

The court has opposed some state-sponsored prayer and religious exercises, such as prayer in public schools, but not, for example, by legislative chaplains opening up a state legislative session, he said.

Lupu said O'Donnell's point that 'separation of church and state' is not literally in the Constitution can largely be seen as a signal to her supporters.

"As soon as she says those words are not in the Constitution, people on her side know what the code is," he said. "Going back to the 1980s, this is political code for 'I think government should support religious groups.'"

O'Donnell did articulate during the debate a belief that government should partner with faith-based organizations to provide social services, while Coons favored a more cautious approach.

"I do think it is appropriate and there are times and places when we can use public dollars to support the provision of public relief, public benefit, public service through faith-based organizations but we have to carefully police that line to make sure they aren't using those resources for prosletyzing," Coons said.

Later, O'Donnell again raised the issue of the meaning of the First Amendment, pressing Coons to articulate its clauses.

"Can I ask you a question, Chris? Can you name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment?" asked O'Donnell.

"I think the very first provision of the First Amendment is that the government shall make no establishment of religion and before we get into a further debate about which one of us knows the Constitution better, how about ... we get the panel asking our questions today," Coons replied.

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