WILMINGTON, Del. | Republican Christine O’Donnell challenged her Democratic rival Tuesday to show where the Constitution requires separation of church and state, drawing swift criticism from her opponent, laughter from her law school audience and a quick defense from prominent conservatives.
“Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” Ms. O’Donnell asked while Democrat Chris Coons, an attorney, sat a few feet away.
Mr. Coons responded that Ms. O’Donnell’s question “reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of what our Constitution is. … The First Amendment establishes a separation.”
She interrupted to say, “The First Amendment does? … So you’re telling me that the separation of church and state, the phrase ‘separation of church and state,’ is in the First Amendment?”
Her campaign issued a statement later saying Ms. O’Donnell “was not questioning the concept of separation of church and state as subsequently established by the courts. She simply made the point that the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution.”
Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh made the same point in his radio program soon after the debate, saying, “There’s nothing in the Constitution about separation of church and state.”
The controversy was the latest to befall Ms. O’Donnell in a race where she trails badly in the polls against Mr. Coons.
Mr. Coons is a county executive nominated by the Democrats for the seat held for years by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Ms. O’Donnell, with strong “tea party” support, burst into the national spotlight by winning the Republican primary over a longtime GOP congressman.
The subject of religion and the law came up during their debate at Widener University Law School as Ms. O’Donnell criticized Mr. Coons for saying that teaching creationism in public school would violate the Constitution.
Mr. Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism Ms. O’Donnell used the term “intelligent design” but that under the “indispensable principle” of separation of church and state “religious doctrine doesn’t belong in our public schools.”
He said the separation of church and state was one of a number of “settled pieces of constitutional law” worked out through years of legal development including Supreme Court decisions. He said a woman’s right to abortion was another.
He noted again the First Amendment’s ban on establishment of religion.
“That’s in the First Amendment?” she said, smiling.
Both candidates suggested that the exchange showed the other didn’t understand the Constitution.
The First Amendment states: “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.”