Wednesday, October 20, 2010

O’Donnell Questions the Separation of Church & State

In a recent debate Republican Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell seemed to question the notion of the separation of church and state.

From the story –
"Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?" O'Donnell asked Chris Coons Tuesday, drawing swift criticism from him, laughter from the crowd and a quick defense from prominent conservatives.

Coons, an attorney, responded that O'Donnell's question "reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is. ... The First Amendment establishes a separation."

She interrupted to say, "The First Amendment does? ... So you're telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase 'separation of church and state,' is in the First Amendment?"

Her campaign issued a statement later saying O'Donnell "was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts. She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution."

[...]

The subject of religion and the law came up during their debate at Widener University Law School as O'Donnell criticized Coons for saying that teaching creationism in public school would violate the Constitution.

Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism — O'Donnell used the term "intelligent design" — but that under the "indispensable principle" of separation of church and state "religious doctrine doesn't belong in our public schools."

He said the separation of church and state was one of a number of "settled pieces of constitutional law" worked out through years of legal development including Supreme Court decisions. He said a woman's right to abortion was another.

He noted again the First Amendment's ban on establishment of religion.

"That's in the First Amendment?" she said, smiling.

Both candidates suggested that the exchange showed the other didn't understand the Constitution.

The First Amendment states: "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."

The phrase "separation of church and state" is usually traced to President Thomas Jefferson. In a letter in 1802, he referred to the First Amendment and said that it built "a wall of separation between Church & State."

The relationship of government and religion continues to be debated in American law. Many argue that the First Amendment's reference to religion involves the establishment of any particular religion, an important concern to the American colonists, not a ban on all involvement between religion and government.
O’Donnell is correct in that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution itself, but the idea of preventing the establishment of an official religion obviously is. The First Amendment was written by James Madison, as was most of the Constitution itself, who was a fervent supporter of religious freedom.

What concerns me about the folks who baulk at the idea of the separation of church and state is where that type of thinking can lead us. Obviously people having taken the separation idea too far and come up with ideas and policies that are just too P.C. and over-the-top, but those who are going in the opposite direction are doing so with seemingly theocratic tendencies. There has to be happy medium between these two extremes. What we need to do is balance the need for the separation of church and state while at the same time not going overboard with ridiculous political correctness.

3 comments:

Man of the West said...

You're aware, of course, that at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified, some of the states had official state religions, and also that they kept them for quite some time after the Bill of Rights was ratified.

The First Amendment was, of course, just as you say, intended (at least in part) to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion, such as the Church of England. It was never intended to prevent local school districts from determining whether or not to teach intelligent design along with evolution, or to prevent government at any level from simply recognizing the existence of God--as indeed, the Declaration does with its invocation of the "Creator," or even of Jesus Christ as--you would not believe the number of people who do not know this is in the Constitution--it says, just before the signatures--"Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names."

You're right; we've gotten silly over this. Our fathers sought to prevent the emergence of "the Church of America," and we have ended up by hassling football coaches over praying with their players.

Loomis said...

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Dave said...

MOTW said: You're aware, of course, that at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified, some of the states had official state religions, and also that they kept them for quite some time after the Bill of Rights was ratified.

Yes and it was wrong. Also it was James Madison that got Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom signed into law.

MOTW said: …or to prevent government at any level from simply recognizing the existence of God--as indeed, the Declaration does with its invocation of the "Creator," or even of Jesus Christ as--you would not believe the number of people who do not know this is in the Constitution--it says, just before the signatures--"Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord…

I’m sorry but it is a pretty big stretch to say that the Founding Fathers were somehow evoking or even acknowledging Jesus simply based on the fact that the date in the Constitution is listed as “in the Year of our Lord.” That is how dates were listed at the time.

On the topic of intelligent design, the simple fact is that intelligent design does not belong in a science class or a science textbook. That having been said if a student asks about intelligent design in science class, the teacher should treat the student with dignity and respect and encourage the discussion. Also if people are getting up in arms because a coach prays with his/her team before a game then they just need to get a life. As long as the coach isn’t forcing, coercing, or compelling the students/players to join in then there isn’t a problem IMHO.


Loomis – Thanks for stopping by. I checked out your blog. That’s interesting stuff.