Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?

Christine O’Donnell shows her knowledge or lack thereof of the Constitution in a debate today. She asked opponent Chris Coons, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” The quote starts at 2 minutes and 50 seconds in the video above.

While the constitution does not state “separation of church and state”, the First Amendment makes it pretty clear:

Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression. Ratified December 15, 1791.

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.



15 responses to “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?

  1. Right-wingers only study the parts of the Constitution they like.

  2. Stop the madness. It would be truly embarrassing if she won.

  3. I am a republican who has never wanted a candidate to lose so badly.

    GO COONS!!!!!

  4. Michael Forrest

    While this quote no doubt makes for a fun post (and I have my own concerns about O’Donnell – which I’ve mentioned in a previous comment), it doesn’t really deal fairly with what she means. Conservatives like O’Donnell have long held (legitimately, I believe), that the First Amendment has been unduly expanded by liberal secularists to mean something that it was not originally intended to mean: an absolute separation of Church and State such that religion must somehow be excised from public life.

    The phrase “separation of Church and State” does not appear in the Constitution or amendments. It was penned by Thomas Jefferson in a personal letter and his intention was to protect religious communities from the federal government (not state government). Conservatives generally argue that it has come to be “freedom FROM religion” in public matters of state rather than “freedom OF religion.” And I tend to agree with that sentiment.

    If you want to get better understanding of the full context behind O’Donnell’s point, read the following:


  5. Michael Forrest

    More from O’Donnell and others explaining what I’m talking about, above:



    Not quite as silly as it was made out by the mainstream media, I think.

  6. Great link on her response.
    However, the argument that she was making in the debate that I found disturbing was the notion that the local school board should have the right to approve teaching creationism in the public schools. Under the concept of freedom of practice, she believes that the local school board can choose to teach Creationism or Intelligent Design. The local school board is an extension of government. Government making a decision to teach a religious belief is essentially the same as the government approving or endorsing a religion. This is best kept out of the public schools and left to private and religious schools. I would argue that following Christine’s proposal does not promote freedom “from” or “of” religion. I don’t want government at any level be able to teach religion or religious concepts. For those who want it, I suggest they keep in mind that their religion may not be the benefactor of that government support either now or in the future. It’s best to keep it neutral.

  7. It is clear from the debate and the ensuing comments that fundamentalism of any stripe can be very dangerous. I took issue in the ’60’s with Barry Goldwater when he proclaimed: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” We have seen too many well-meaning zealots trying to impose their beliefs on others. This is the main reason that the Tea Party and its shallow sloganeering scares me.

  8. Michael Forrest

    Okay – so it appears as though we agree at least that the “separation of Church and State” issue wasn’t quite what it was portrayed as being.

    Regarding your subsequent point, I hear you, but I have a few thoughts.

    1) ID and Creationism are not identical. Creationism is not compatible with Evolution. ID is compatible with Evolution, as long as Evolution is not extended to preclude the existence of God. And so, Coons conflated the two. O’Donnell was right to correct him on that as well. I just thought that was worth clarifying.

    2) ID is really more philosophy than science (but it’s not theology, properly defined, either). And so, it should not be taught as science. But, unfortunately, the science of Evolution too often becomes the PHILOSOPHY of Evolutionism or Darwinism in our schools as a practical matter – pushing a philosophical view that leads too many students to conclude that belief in God is incompatible with science, that they must be stupid or mental midgets to hold to such ideas. I think what we’re seeing here in people like Christine O’Donnell is an understandable “push-back” from people of faith against that encroachment by so-called “science.” The answer, imo, is for science to remain science and philosophy to remain philosophy.

    You might find these articles/interviews by/with Cardinal Schonborn informative on the issue:




    You might also be interested in his book:


    3) Neither creationism nor ID are “religions”, properly defined. People of many religions (or no particular religion at all) hold to one or the other. And so, I find the argument that ID and/or creationism must be precluded under the 1st amendment to be dubious (especially ID). I would allow ID in the context of a philosophy course, at least.

  9. I have said it before, I will likely say it again. – Sometimes God just gets in the way.

    (not directed at Michael but you did inspire the thought)

    If the broader conservative movement could shelve the religious and social issues, then we’d have certainly a plurality if not a majority of Americans in support of a socially liberal, fiscally conservative revolution that would lead us to a much smaller government, a balanced budget, lower taxes, and a smaller military.

    But instead we end up arguing about who’s version of God is better…

    The constitutional question is interesting though. If the federal government needs to stay out of the religious discussion, and allow people to worship as they choose, does that imply that the infamous “powers left to the states” include the right to teach creationism?

  10. I think that we also agree that Christine O’Donnell is probably not the best proponent of her own issues.

    Some thoughts on your thoughts:

    Chris Coons did group the two ideas of ID and Creationism. I won’t pretend to know why he did, but I would have done the same based on my understanding of the 2005 Federal District Court Case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.


    Parents had sued the school district against the school districts desire to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. They claimed it was an “explanation of the origin of life”. In the ruling, Judge John E. Jones III appointed by President G.W. Bush stated in part,

    “A significant aspect of the IDM [intelligent design movement] is that despite Defendants’ protestations to the contrary, it describes ID as a religious argument. In that vein, the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity.”

    Part of the evidence presented was the book that was to be used to describe ID. There also was presented a previous version of the book which had used the term “God” where the current one used “Intelligent Design”.

    I agree that neither concepts are religions unto themselves, but let’s at least agree that both stem from a Christian point of view. I would also suggest that proponents of ID are not looking to teach ID in a philosophy course. They seem to want it in the science class as either a co-equal or replacement to evolution.

  11. Michael Forrest

    Just fyi, creationism is in flat contradiction to evolution. It basically says that God created the animals and man fully formed. No room for evolution there. ID does not deny evolution but says that there is evidence of “intelligence” and “design” *in the process* of evolution. You might want to read the work of men like Dr. Michael Behe, a well-respected scientist at Lehigh University (and proponent of ID). In my reading of him, he does not deny evolution. What he maintains is that the current, most popular (purely materialistic) mechanisms proposed to explain all evolutionary processes are insufficient. So, these are two different things – ID and creationism. The fact that some people who are creationists may have jumped on the ID bandwagon in order to further their views and agenda does not change the facts, the distinctions. ID and creationism are not the same thing.

    Interview with Behe:

    Michael Behe – Darwin’s Black Box:

    Creationism vs. ID at Slate (a liberal publication, hardly sympathetic to either creationism or ID): http://www.slate.com/id/2118388/

    You wrote, “I agree that neither concepts are religions unto themselves, but let’s at least agree that both stem from a Christian point of view.”

    I don’t think I’d entirely agree with the second half of your statement. First, many (perhaps even most?) Christians are not strict creationists or ID adherents. Second, ID is supported by some Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists and people of other religions as well.

    For example:




    One might point out that “thou shalt not murder” and “thou shalt not steal” could be said to “stem from a Christian point of view” (or more accurately, a Judeo-Christian point of view). One might also point out that that it was within the Judeao-Christian context that science and study flourished historically – this is arguably the historical context under which the university system developed. The Judeao-Christian concept of a rational, logical God (as opposed to pagan beliefs involving capricious gods) also led to the belief in a rational, logical universe which in turn inspired men to search out the ways in which God designed the universe. People forget that so many great men of science and discovery such as Pascal, Pasteur, Linus Pauling, Tycho Brahe, Gregor Mendel, Copernicus, Descartes, Isaac Newton, Darwin (!) were *Christians* – several were even Catholic priests. As such, I don’t think the place from which idea may have originally emanated and gained prominence should automatically disqualify it from consideration in the public sphere. That is exactly the kind of approach that many Christians like Christine O’Donnell are reacting against. IMO, both are problematic – the answer is in the middle.

    You wrote, “I would also suggest that proponents of ID are not looking to teach ID in a philosophy course.”

    I wouldn’t broad-brush the entire group in that way. I’m sympathetic to ID and I know many others who are actual proponents of it within the Catholic Church. But we wouldn’t agree with pushing it as “science” per se. I believe Cardinal Schonborn makes the correct distinctions and has the correct approach. But I agree with you that it shouldn’t be taught really as science, in place of evolutionary theory. Similarly, the science of evolution should be contained so that it does not cross philosophical boundaries it has no business crossing, either.

  12. Michael Forrest

    JD, you wrote:

    “If the broader conservative movement could shelve the religious and social issues, then we’d have certainly a plurality if not a majority of Americans in support of a socially liberal, fiscally conservative revolution that would lead us to a much smaller government, a balanced budget, lower taxes, and a smaller military. But instead we end up arguing about who’s version of God is better…”

    I don’t think that’s true.

    1) Many who describe themselves as “conservative” care more about the social issues being “conservative” than they do the economic ones. In particular – in the South and the Mid-West. If you jettison the social conservatives, you lose the South and much of the Mid-West. You’ll pick up some people in the Northeast and the West, but not enough to make up for the losses, imo.

    2) IMO, one of the primary roles of government is to protect the weak from the strong. And the fact that abortion – the killing of pre-born human beings is legally permitted in this country is morally indefensible. It’s inhuman.

    It’s not a matter of faith – it’s a matter of science as to when human life begins. You’ll find the answer in any college textbook on embryology. Roe v Wade was terrible law – which is even admitted by liberal attorneys like Alan Dershowitz.

    Just fyi (and sorry to digress, Glenn):

    1) “Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei … and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning … of a human being.” (Moore, Keith L., Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: B.C. Decker, Inc., 1988, p.2.)
    2) “Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed. … The combination of 23 chromosomes present in each pronucleus results in 46 chromosomes in the zygote. Thus the diploid number is restored and the embryonic genome is formed. The embryo now exists as a genetic unity.” (O’Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, pp. 8, 29).
    3) “Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote). … The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.” (Carlson, Bruce M., Patten’s Foundations of Embryology, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p.3.)
    4) “Embryo: An organism in the earliest stage of development; in a man, from the time of conception to the end of the second month in the uterus.” (Dox, Ida G. et al. The Harper Collins Illustrated Medical Dictionary. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993, p. 146.)
    5) “The fertilized egg, now properly called an embryo, must make its way to the uterus.” (Carlson, Bruce M., Human Embryology and Developmental Biology. St. Louis: Mosby, 1994, p.3).
    6) “From the moment a baby is conceived, it bears the indelible stamp of a separate distinct personality, an individual different from all other individuals.” Ultrasound pioneer, Sir William Liley, MD 1967
    7) “After fertilization has taken place, a new human being has come into existence. This is no longer a matter of taste of opinion. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.” Dr. Jerome Lejeune, genetics professor at the University of Descartes, Paris. Discoverer of the Down’s Syndrome chromosome
    8) “It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.” Professor M. Matthew-Roth, Harvard University Medical School
    9) By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.” Professor Hymie Gordon, Mayo Clinic

  13. Mike,

    If it’s alright, I’d rather keep the discussion to the Intelligent Design (ID) debate for now. I’d also like to say thank you for the time to have dedicated to this back an forth discussion. Frankly, this discussion is one of the reasons that we created PoliTalk. Personally, I learn much from these quality dialogues and are open to opposing views. That said, I am still troubled by the idea of teaching ID in public schools as science.

    I took some time on my response because I wanted to read the articles that you suggested I read. Some things did seem to be common threads:

    1. Michael Behe is often quoted as the lead scientist who is supporting this theory.
    2. Most references I can find both in your examples and on the web seem to get sourced back to The Center for Science & Culture which is part of the Discovery Institute.

    I will take these one at a time.

    First, Michael Behe is a professor of Lehigh University. On the Lehigh University website, there is an interesting statement that is worth noting in this discussion. “While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.” http://www.lehigh.edu/~inbios/news/evolution.htm
    It seems odd that Professor Behe cannot find anyone to confirm or agree with his theory in his own department. He also testified in the court case that I mentioned earlier (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) in which his side lost.

    Second, the Center for Science and Culture is run by two people with interesting backgrounds:
    The Center’s Director is Dr. Stephen Meyer, who holds a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University.
    The Center’s Associate Director is Dr. John G. West, who holds a Ph.D. in Government from Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Washington.
    Neither of these individuals actually hold a science degree. Okay, let’s not base a determination on this alone. Further research shows their parent organization, the Discovery Institute, has a very active role in promoting ID. They own many websites to propagate the theory including:
    Using multiple websites to promote an idea is a common strategy used by issue organizations that want their idea to be perceived as having more support than it actually does.

    Also, their president and founder, Bruce Chapman, writes a very active blog that I think anyone would acknowledge is a conservative blog.
    This isn’t to say he doesn’t have the right to do so, but we should keep all of this in mind when we look at who is supporting and funding a “scientific” theory. SourceWatch did a very interesting article on how this organization works.

    Finally, I will end my observation with this. I searched for a list of universities that were offering graduate and phd level programs in Evolution and also in ID. I found these for Evolutionary Biology:
    Columbia University – Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
    Dartmouth College – Graduate Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Emory University – Program in Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution
    Northwestern University – Integrated Graduate Programs in the Life Sciences
    The University of Iowa – Offers biology (MS, PhD); cell and developmental biology (MS, PhD); evolution (MS, PhD); genetics (MS, PhD); neurobiology (MS, PhD); plant biology (MS, PhD).
    University of Miami – Offers biology (MS, PhD); genetics and evolution (MS, PhD).
    University of Pittsburgh -Program in Ecology and Evolution – Offers ecology and evolution (PhD).

    I found no such programs for Intelligent Design.

  14. Michael Forrest

    Understood on keeping the conversation to ID. I was just responding to something JD wrote.

    I’m enjoying the conversation, too. So, no worries. 🙂 But unless there seems to seem some reason to continue, this will probably be my last post. I don’t want to beat a dead horse.

    Regarding ID:

    1) I’m not sure why you seem to think I disagree with you about teaching ID as science. We’re in agreement there. If you look at my comments, I keep saying that I agree that it’s not really science and shouldn’t be taught as such. It’s more properly categorized as philosophy and I have no serious objection to it being taught in the context of a *philosophy* course.

    2) Regarding the number of scientists who are behind ID, that doesn’t really trouble me. Neither does it particularly bother me that it has some questionable supporters (like the Discovery Institute). As I pointed out, some people are glomming in because they know that creationism isn’t going to work. So that argument against ID is more guilt by association than substance, imo. There are always groups of people like that on various issues (for instance, communists in this country have often glommed onto and generally support the Democrats. That doesn’t discredit the Democrat party in and of itself — although I could find plenty of other substantive ways to discredit it! LOL)

    Also, many are reacting against ID because of the confusion caused by mixing science and philosophy too much. There’s certainly cross-over between the two, but they are different disciplines. I think that reaction is understandable – in fact, I share it to an extent. Additionally, ID is still a new area of exploration and it challenges some of the core materialistic, philosophical assumptions held by more than a few evolutionists. So, that is another source of resistance.

    There’s another angle that maybe deserves some examination. If you read about many things we accept as simple facts today, they were once treated with disdain by the scientific community (or other scholarly communities – such as economics, sociology, psychology, etc.) and it took a long time before that dynamic changed. For example, the role of bacteria in infections or more recently, their role in stomach ulcers. The proponents of these ideas stood virtually alone for years and were even ridiculed by the scientific community. Science has its own “dogmas” and political realities. People are people.

    Read about Ignaz Semmelweis. He was considered a madman:

    Read about Marshall and Warren:

    In the area of astronomy, science was once confident that the universe would eventually contract. The theory of an expanding universe was held in low regard. Now, virtually everyone accepts that the universe is expanding and will not contract.

    Yet there are some who are now saying the expanding universe is bunk:


    Even a great man like Einstein allowed suppositional prejudices to taint his work. Einstein made what he called “the greatest blunder of my life” because he allowed such suppositions to color his equations: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/Cyberia/Cosmos/ExpandUni.html

    The idea of a “beginning” to the universe also was generally resisted, perhaps because it sounded a little too Judeo-Christian, a la Genesis. But now, the Big Bang is pretty much accepted as fact. In the area of evolutionary theory, Darwin and all evolutionary scientists agreed that evolution would occur steadily over time with a great deal of evidence (transitional forms) in the fossil record. But, eventually, that gave way – quite reluctantly and over time – to what is now called “punctuated equilibrium” (advanced by Dr. Steven J Gould). The fact is, there were huge bursts of creativity and diversity that occurred over short periods of time. And punctuated equilibrium is still trying to develop its own answers to explain how and why that happened (at least the last I checked). There are many more examples that could be given.

    To be clear: I’m not saying that ID should be taught as science, especially in place of evolution. I’m not even saying that I’m an ID adherent, personally. I’m just trying to examine it objectively and dispassionately. Philosophically, I’m sympathetic to it and see merit. But I see things on *both* sides of the discussion that concern me. However, you’re seeing more of the things that appear “pro-ID” from me right now because there’s no one else to explain or defend it here. If I were talking to an avid ID proponent, I’d be saying something different to him – pointing out its limitations, etc.

    But getting back to the original post – Christine O’Donnell was correct and had a valid point that I believe is too often missed (both in regard to the actual wording AND the intent of the First Amendment). We are guaranteed freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. There is no guarantee that religion will be walled off as though it’s some sort of virus that must be quarantined from public life. Yet, too many people seem to think this is exactly what the constitution guarantees.

    Yet – I also agree with you she’s not always the best proponent. LOL! Not that that always matters. I can think of a slew of liberals that aren’t exactly the best proponents of liberalism, and yet there they are – in the House and the Senate. Go figure.

  15. When I reivew this clause – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion – It seems to me that government funding can not go to particular religious groups/sects, nor specific religious practices/routines/rituals be mandated by the government.

    If that is the case, then what can the government do with respect to religion? I guess allow religious groups access to public spaces for demonstrations or expressions of faith, while refraining from favoritism. Maybe the same goes for history/sociology lessions, in explaining major religions of the world (or even local ones in case you live on a reservation, or in a community of immigrants with a unique culture/background).

    Otherwise, I would assume a body of precedents have reinforced the concept popularly termed separation of church and state over the past 200 plus year , buttressed by responses to conflicts, say like the bible riots of the 1830s in New York. It is funny how mixing religion with policy can create really hot, live ammo dangerous to all.

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