Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ignorance of First Amendment at Law School

You can read the "long version" of this story at the links below. Here is the short version, which goes to the point of this blog.

There was a debate at a between Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell on October 19, 2010, for Delaware's open U.S. Senate seat. The debate was held at Delaware's Widener Law School (that's an important fact). The debate at some point wandered into whether local schools could teach creationism or should stay with Darwinism, and the phrase "separation of church and state" came up. O'Donnell then asked, "Where in the Constitution is "separation of church and state?" The law school audience laughed and some were heard to say "Whoa!," and the context seems to be that they were laughing at O'Donnel. Coons claimed that is is in the First Amendment and made light of her question.

I would think a room with a high population of law students would not laugh at the question, hoping they would know that those words are not in the First Amendment. When quoted, the reference is to a private letter of Thomas Jefferson, and in the legal world that should be an important distinction. Not that the phrase should be overlooked, but its context is important. Also important is the fact that the Founders signed a document that did not contain that phrase. But the laughed at her. In my opinion the [sad] joke is on them, not her.

You will read in some of the text below that some in the media are also making fun of O'Donnell's question. Political journalists should know the Constitution and some of the important Supreme Court cases well enough to understand her question. Clearly they do not all meet my own preferred standard. But I'm not paying their salaries, I don't live my life around what they tell me, and I don't hold them as accountable as I do law students. That's partly because I keep hoping that law schools will point out that in the 1947 Supreme Court case that first brought "separation..." to a legal status, the court only used that quote without actually quoting from the words of the First Amendment and without looking at prior decisions and court writings. They can agree or not with the spirit of that 1947 court decision, but they should take note of the distinction between personal writings and the dictates of the Constitution.

Now that I re-think all this, I don't know why I am surprised. I have done random testing with various demographics and learned that it is probably the majority of the U.S. population who believe that "separation of church and state" is literally in the Constitution. That's my primary motivation for starting this blog in the first place.

Read more at the three links below (one include a media file):

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