Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Where is Separation of Church & State in the Constitution?

The question on many minds today is...

Where is Separation of Church & State in the Constitution?

Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell asked that question of her opponent during a campaign debate. The audience, comprised of lawyers and law students, audibly gasped before her opponent smugly told her the clause was in the First Amendment.

Except that it’s not.

The media is attempting to use this exchange to show that O’Donnell is not intelligent and does not understand a fundamental clause in the United States Constitution. Rather, we should be seriously concerned about the fact that the lawyers, law students, the Democrat candidate and the media DO NOT understand the First Amendment as written.

Christine O’Donnell was correct to question her opponent’s statement that the clause, “Separation of Church and State” is in the Constitution because it is NOT in the Constitution. It is not even in the Bill of Rights.


In fact, the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut on January 1, 1802. Research at The Library of Congress has concluded that Jefferson wrote this as a political letter to reassure the Baptists that, contrary to the rhetoric of his political opponents, he was a friend of religion. This was not “a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.”

Jefferson’s line from this now infamous letter has been incorrectly attributed to the Constitution and Bill of Rights for decades. The phrase “Separation of Church and State” came to be included in our discussion of the First Amendment when Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black used it in the majority opinion of Everson vs. Board of Education in 1947.

By co-opting the line from Jefferson’s letter, the Supreme Court suggested that he meant there should be no religion in government. In fact, the original founders of the U.S. Constitution desired that the new government did not and would not establish any one particular religion as the official religion on the government, in stark contrast with other sovereign nations at the time. As the great majority of our colonists fled Europe in the face of religious persecution, a variety of religious beliefs existed across the thirteen states.

While Delaware Senatorial candidate O’Donnell missed the opportunity to explicitly educate the audience and media on the difference between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses found in the First Amendment and the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” found in subsequent case law; she has started a national discussion on the issue.

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