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Should O'Donnell questioning separation of church and state be shocking?

Tuesday morning saw Delaware Senatorial candidates Christine O'Donnell (R) and Chris Coons (D) square off in a local radio debate. The exchange was nothing short of contentious and uncomfortable. That was most apparent during a discussion about "separation of church and state" when O'Donnell asked where that phrase is found in the Constitution. And while the crowd gasped, and the media laughed, there may be more room for debate than one thinks.

In response to O'Donnell's comments that decisions regarding curriculum should be left to local school districts, Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism but that "religious doctrine doesn't belong in our public schools."

"Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?" O'Donnell then asked him, cracking a smile after the audience busted out in laughter.

When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O'Donnell asked: "You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?"

"You actually audibly heard the crowd gasp," Widener University political scientist Wesley Leckrone said after the debate, adding that it raised questions about O'Donnell's grasp of the Constitution.

The exchange starts at 2:50 below:

Like the crowd, the Associated Press seemed equally surprised. It interviewed Erin Daly, a Widener professor who specializes in constitutional law, who said that while there are questions about what counts as government promotion of religion, there is little debate over whether the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from making laws establishing religion.

The AP is correct: debate generally does not center around whether the federal government can "establish" laws instituting a national faith or favoring one religion over another. However, there is wide debate about whether the Constitution prohibits government from dabbling in religion at all. And not everyone agrees that O'Donnell was questioning the establishment of religion, as much as the complete abandonment of it.

Over at National Review, Romesh Ponnuru thinks O'Donnell's statement isn't being given fair treatment. "Some bloggers and tv commentators have seized on remarks by Christine O’Donnell to suggest that she is unaware that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion," he writes. "I don’t think that’s right. What she denies is that the First Amendment requires 'the separation of church and state.'"

Instead, he says, the confusion is due to murky terms. "Separation of church and state" generally means one things to liberals and another to conservatives:

Conceptual clarity has not been a feature of the discussion of whether religion is having (or threatens to have) a dangerous influence on American government. People mean different things when they talk about “theocrats,” “the separation of church and state,” and “secularism.” The word “secular” can describe both irreligion and neutrality about religion. Yet commentators often throw around these words and phrases as though they had single, uncontested meanings—or, worse, exploit the instability of the phrase for polemical purposes. ...

Vague terminology keeps people talking past one another.

That's despite the fact that the phrase was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, and adopted as a short-hand explanation of the Establishment Clause in 1878 in the case Reynolds vs. United States.

As Mediaite points out, the term "separation of church and state" never appears in the Constitution, which is exactly what O'Donnell was asking. The correct response to her question might have been "nowhere, but Supreme Court Justices over the years have boiled down the First Amendment's language to the simple phrase 'separation of church and state.'"

But that's not the response O'Donnell received from Coons, nor the one she is receiving from the media:

Still, it does appear that O'Donnell concedes the point at the end of the exchange. But maybe she shouldn't have. Maybe she didn't realize that she was on to something. And maybe instead of being faulted for asking the question, she should be scrutinized for not understanding the nuance.

You can add your thoughts over on the story side of the site.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

One last thing…
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