It’s in the First Amendment

October 19, 2010 | By | 15 Replies More

This exchange between Republican Senate Candidate Christine O’Donnell and her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, is surreal. Here’s how it went, as reported by CBS News:

Coons said that creationism, which he considers “a religious doctrine,” should not be taught in public schools due to the Constitution’s First Amendment. He argued that it explicitly enumerates the separation of church and state.

“The First Amendment does?” O’Donnell asked. “Let me just clarify: You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”

“Government shall make no establishment of religion,” Coons responded, reciting from memory the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Coons was off slightly: The first amendment actually reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”)

“That’s in the First Amendment…?” O’Donnell responded.

I thought this had to be a spoof from the Onion when I first read it, but you can watch the video if you want proof–if you can stand to watch it. I do sympathize with Chris Coons. This is also a tragedy for America. All of the candidates running for office should be be best and the brightest. They should be familiar with the facts regarding the issues on which they opine. O’Donnell seems to have the factual competency of a fourth grader.


Category: ignorance, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (15)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    It would have been more Newsworthy had O'Donnell actually known the First Amendment (and bonus points plus an Important Update if she could quote it verbatim)

  2. This personifies this sort of candidate (and voter)— they assume the way they think things ought to be is supported by the documentation and history without bothering to check. The presumption is eclipsed only by their ignorance.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    When you laugh at and dismiss this wingnut, it merely enrages, propels and encourages her supporters and their ilk to even greater activity.

    Let her alone to stew in her ignorance after she has been politely rebutted. It is not necessary to pour oil on the fire, it is merely sufficient that "ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions."

    Besides, she refused to even answer the question about whether previously she had called evolution a "myth." She did.

  4. Walter says:

    I believe that Christine O'Donnell was arguing as to whether the phrase "separation of Church and State" is in the Constitution. The answer is no. It's sad when people repeatedly use this phrase to site the First Amendment. Chris Coons states that the Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment in this manner. Not true, that was Thomas Jefferson's wording when he wrote to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802. I'm not sure too many people know that. This was a PRIVATE and PERSONAL letter that was taken out of context and the Supreme Court had no business using it to interpret the law.

    Thomas Jefferson's "wall" was not to limit religious activities in public, but rather limit the power of government to prohibit the interference of the free exercise of religion. One should read his entire letter and the many others. The only way the government was to interfere is if it works ill to his neighbor, for example human sacrifice.

    Thomas Jefferson was not even one of the ninety who framed the First Amendment. Throughout all of the recorded discussions of the ninety who did frame it, not once was this phrase used.

    Lastly, I thought Christine O'Donnell was accused of being a Witch. Do Witches believe in Intelligent Design?

  5. Walter,

    I think you're stretching to defend her. Coons quoted her the relevant passage.

    There is also ample documentation from the various members of the government of the early republic to establish that they saw the United States as a secular, non-religious set of institutions.

    Frankly, I don't think the separation is far enough. The tax exempt status for religions is an implicit support by the government of religious institutions. Not that I expect anything to be done to change it, but I really think churches should be taxed—especially if they're going to engage in political activity from the pulpit.

  6. p.s. Even if the separation is not explicit in the Constitution, I think it is a pretty damn good idea and ought to be considered settled law and policy. It's been fairly clear that when religious groups do get tangled up in civic affairs, all manner of lame-brained goofiness results.

  7. Walter says:

    Honestly Mark, I also believe that churches should be taxed. That way they can finally preach the way they want to and engage in political activity in a manner consistent with their beliefs.

    Some might argue that they already do preach politics. Not as much as they should. The one's that do, really tone it down and others will not touch the subject.

  8. Tony Coyle says:

    Walter, and O'Donnell and all the rest of the Crazy-Christianist-Revisionists argue from a literalist interpretation: if the words aren't there then the concept isn't there.

    They (wilfully?) fail to understand a fundamental concept* of language – which is that concepts can be encoded by many different words or phrases (even in ostensibly formalized languages, like Loglan). Such flexibility in crafting expressions does give languages power and beauty, but also leads to the challenge of interpretation.

    Unfortunately for the revisionists, the intended interpretation of the first amendment can be found in the writings of the founders, most specifically in the Danbury Letter of Thomas Jefferson, where that most specific phrase (separation of Church and State)was used.

    *Once could argue that they fail to understand the concept of concept but that just leads down a wormhole of metaphysical hurt. Easier and equally valid to say they are unimaginative, literalist bumpkins.

  9. Tony Coyle says:


    You don't seem to understand the terms of your church's tax-free status. You may proselytize and preach about anything you please, including politics.

    You may not proclaim support in favor of a specific Candidate.


    Issues, yes (otherwise many non-profits would be in a world of trouble from the IRS).

    Candidates, no.

    This is where the problem lies. Your churches already preach in favor of policies and issues (anti-abortion, and so on). As those sermons move closer in alignment to the positions of specific candidates or parties – your churches are approaching the line where they are in breach of their IRS tax-exempt provisions.

    Just because you say you are victimized and being denied freedom of speech, does not make it so.

  10. Walter says:

    Erich and Mark, if you watch this interview with Christine O'Donnell you will see that what I stated on my previous comment was exactly what she was doing, questioning whether the phrase "separation of church and state" was in the first amendment.….

    Erich, I disagree with the Judge's decision that it is unconstitutional to teach ID in the Dover School District classrooms. He even sites the phrase "separation of church and state" when he was defending his position while accepting the Humanist Religious Liberty Award in 2008. It's the same tactic Hitler used. If you tell a lie long enough people will believe it.

    How does teaching ID in a classroom establish a religion (catholic, Protestant, lutheran, evangelical etc.)? Not giving the students the choice does violate the First Amendment in that it prohibits their free exercise thereof.

  11. Tony Coyle says:

    Walter – she is clueless:

    From ABC: Christine O'Donnell Stands Her Ground on First Amendment Statement, Blames Media for Distortions

    In an […] interview with ABC News, Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell strongly defended her statements on the separation of church and state[…]During Tuesday night's debate with Democratic opponent Chris Coons, O'Donnell challenged Coons to show where the Constitution requires separation of church and state, drawing swift criticism from her opponent, laughter from the audience and yet another media firestorm."It's really funny the way that the media reports things," she told ABC News. "After that debate my team and I we were literally high fiving each other thinking that we had exposed he doesn't know the First Amendment, and then when we read the reports that said the opposite we were all like 'what?'"

    (my emphasis)

    The stupid. It burns!

  12. Walter,

    Please. ID is Creationism with a new coat of paint.

    Actually, I don't have a problem with religious instruction in public schools—but it should be in a class about religion, not in a science class, which was the basis of the lawsuit originally, that ID was being illegally inserted into a science class as if it were a viable competing theory. It is not. And the judge (rightly) castigated the proponents of ID for essentially lying through their teeth to slip something in the back door.

    The idea that a supernatural being created everything is a fundamentally religious idea. Do you really not get that or are you playing the devil's advocate?

  13. Tony Coyle says:

    Walter asks

    How does teaching ID in a classroom establish a religion (catholic, Protestant, lutheran, evangelical etc.)? Not giving the students the choice does violate the First Amendment in that it prohibits their free exercise thereof.

    Do you propose, Walter to also teach other unsubstantiated theories? My cousin (at the age of 10) proposed a theory that the moon was made mostly of styrofoam, with a uranium core. Should we teach or investigate that? It has more evidentiary support (overall density, reflectance, and newtoniam orbital mechanics) than ID. I also had a neighbor who thought that we had tides because of sunlight (his rationale – the waves were bigger whenever it was cloudy, and much bigger at night!) Should we teach that theory, too? The evidence seems to fit!

    School is for three things – providing students with the basic skills required to navigate an increasingly complicated world (to communicate, to research, and to analyse data), to equip them for their further growth in education and life (either college or vocationally), and to teach them the value of socialization (we don't have communal classes just for the 'cost scaling' you know – it's also why we have things like dances, shows, clubs, and the like).

    We cannot achieve those goals if we teach kids blatant lies, falsehoods, untruths, fabrications, and distortions of reality.

    Just because you find it personally challenging does not make evolution untrue. ID is not an alternative. It is a distraction, a distortion, a lie. Deal with it.

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