Does Christine O'Donnell understand that the First Amendment prohibits federal establishment of religion?
Yesterday she challenged her Democratic opponent, Chris Coons, on this question during a debate. Media reports on the exchange depicted her as ignorant. In response, conservative writers and pundits—Rush Limbaugh, Ramesh Ponnuru, and bloggers at National Review, the American Spectator, First Things, Right Wing News, and other sites—have come to her defense. They claim O'Donnell was disputing not the Constitution but liberal interpretations of it. In Limbaugh's words:
There was a story that was written in such a way to make the reader believe that Christine O'Donnell did not know that the First Amendment prohibited the government from establishing a religion. … That's not what she was expressing incredulity over. She was incredulous that somebody was saying that the Constitution said there must be separation between church and state. Those words are not in the Constitution.
It's true that the phrase "separation of church and state" isn't in the Constitution. It's also true that this was O'Donnell's main point. But Limbaugh and her other defenders can't hide what she revealed along the way. O'Donnell did express incredulity that the First Amendment prohibits government establishment of religion. It's right there on the tape.
The key exchange begins just after the 17-minute mark. Here's my transcription:
Coons: The First Amendment establishes the separation, the fact that the federal government shall not establish any religion, and decisional law by the Supreme Court over many, many decades—
O'Donnell: The First Amendment does?
I've put O'Donnell's interjection exactly where she delivered it: well after Coons specified that under the First Amendment, "the federal government shall not establish any religion." Coons has the wording wrong: The amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," etc. But he has the gist right. And this—not the phrase "separation of church and state"—is what directly precedes O'Donnell's challenge.
Nor does O'Donnell's inflection match her defenders' interpretation of the exchange. To understand her meaning, you need the audio, not just the transcript. In expressing her disbelief, she clearly emphasizes the word First. She seems incredulous not just at Coons' position against government-established religion, but that he bases it on the First Amendment. It's the citation that surprises her.
A minute later, O'Donnell brings the discussion back to this question:
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.