O'Donnell's Constitutional Ignorance Extends Beyond Church and State

Yesterday's Senate debate in Delaware generated headlines about GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell's comments about the separation of church and state. When Democratic nominee Chris Coons said that public schools are not legally allowed to teach the theory of intelligent design alongside evolution, O'Donnell called this stance "a blatant violation of our Constitution." When Coons pointed out that one tenet of the Constitution is the separation of church and state, O'Donnell asked him, "Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?"

The audience laughed and the blogosphere latched onto O'Donnell's question as an indication of her ignorance on Constitutional matters. In a legal analysis of the debate, however, the Wall Street Journal's Jess Bravin reveals that O'Donnell had a point:

The Bill of Rights begins with the command, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," but it doesn't specifically use the words "separation of church and state."

In 1802, however, President Thomas Jefferson used the metaphor to explain the framers' purpose, and courts since have followed his guidance.

The moderator moved on, but Ms. O'Donnell later returned to this question, demanding of Mr. Coons, "So you're telling me the phrase, 'the separation of church and state,' is found in the Constitution."

Mr. Coons began reciting the Establishment Clause, as it is known, prompting Ms. O'Donnell to ask, "That's in the First Amendment?"

After the debate, an O'Donnell campaign spokesman said his candidate "simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution."

But Bravin draws attention to other areas of O'Donnell's Constitutional ignorance:

Ms. O'Donnell's unfamiliarity with the Constitution extended beyond the First Amendment, when she was asked her view of tea party proposals to repeal some or all of the 14th, 16th and 17th amendments.

She said she would retain the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913 to make U.S. senator an elected position, rather than appointed by state legislatures.

"Can you remind me of what the other ones are?" she asked. ...

Ms. O'Donnell did not respond directly to the question, instead stressing that she favored solving immigration problems and lowering taxes.

Read the full story at the Wall Street Journal.

Presented by

Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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