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The First Amendment heats up: The historical background

October 20, 2010 | 11:48 am

Many Americans were shocked by the debate over the 1st Amendment between Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons.

This time witchcraft was not the center of the zeitgeist, rather it was something much more central to American life. The 1st Amendment began showing up in Google Trends near the end of the day Tuesday, along with “separation of church and state.”

It lead many to wonder if people were fact-checking O’Donnell or brushing up for themselves on the Bill of Rights.

Ironically (or perhaps quite fittingly), the O’Donnell-Coons argument over the Constitution's exact wording occurred in a law school.

At Widener University Law School, the two candidates stumbled onto the topic of....

...“church and state” when they began talking about creationism -- Coons said that “religious doctrine doesn’t belong in our public schools.”

From there, O’Donnell began to question where in the Constitution it ever said “church and state.”

One could call it a big semantical debate. The words “church of state” do not actually appear in the Constitution.

The 1st Amendment does, however, clearly state:

"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."

The Constitution was signed on Sept 17, 1787.

It would not be for another 15 years, when the words “church and state” would appear in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptists in 1802.

The intent of his letter was to ease the fears of the Danbury Baptist Assn., a religious minority in Connecticut.

He explained that “building a wall of separation between Church and State” was something they could rely on within the newly established nation.

“Separation of church and state” became shorthand for the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, a phrase most Americans commonly use today.

That separation, of course, was once deeply important to the first settlers who made the pilgrimage from Europe and arrived in America. They sought to free themselves from from what they considered religious tyranny in their homelands. We know this, right?

While religion may not be taught in public schools throughout the nation, these foundations of American government and U.S. history typically are.

Whether O’Donnell recognizes "church and state" in the Constitution is another matter.

From the debate, it was unclear whether she was arguing about phrasing or if she did not understand the the Bill of Rights at all. (Check out the video below and decide for yourself).

At one point she says, "I didn't bring my Constitution with me."

One thing we can be grateful for: The 1st Amendment also gives all Americans the freedom to question openly the very words printed on the parchment.

Which is what happened in the debate. Sort of.

Here's a video of the debate:


-- Lori Kozlowski

Photo: Screenshot from Google Trends on Tuesday. Credit: Google. Video via YouTube.