By Elizabeth Tenety
Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons (D) and Christine O’Donnell (R) met again Tuesday at Widener University’s School of Law for a debate over, among other contentious topics, the separation of church and state.
After a squabble over whether or not schools should be permitted to teach creationism as a competing theory to evolution, Coons said that the First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to imply the case for the separation of church and state.
O’DONNELL: “So you’re telling me . . . that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is found in the First Amendment?”
Coons didn’t take the bait and went on, citing the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment as confirmation of the First Amendment’s intention.
The debate soon after returned to the subject:
O’DONNELL: “Let me just clarify, you’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”
COONS: “‘Government shall make no establishment of religion'”
O’DONNELL: “That’s in the First Amendment”
It is not clear if O’Donnell last line is a question, a rumination or a confirmation. Listen to the clip and decide. (Around the 19 minute mark).
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.
This point –that the First Amendment does not call for the separation of church and state –is a favorite among some conservative religious activists who say that proponents of secularism have gone too far in removing religion from the public square. For one such perspective, read David Barton, conservative Christian activist and Wallbuilders founder.
The phrase itself –‘separation of church and state’ –originated from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a persecuted Baptist minority group in 1802, well after the Constitution was written and ratified. Jefferson wrote:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Government may not ‘establish’ a religion, nor may it ‘prohibit the free exercise thereof.’ This tension -between the freedom of citizens to express their faith and the duty of government to stay out of the religion business -has haunted America throughout her history. But given the competing opinions on where to draw that line on issues like abortion, gay marriage, public prayer and yes, teaching creationism, could it be that open debate is a sign of a healthy and functioning democracy?
What did you think of the back and forth between O’Donnell and Coons over the ‘separation of church and state’? Do you think the country has gone too far –or not far enough –in keeping religion out of the public square?
More On Faith:
Cal Thomas: “Separation” claim meant to keep religious people out of political life