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First things first

Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell answers a question as Democratic candidate Chris Coons listens during a Delaware Senate debate at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, October 13, 2010. UPI Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool Photo via Newscom

So this past weekend former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was giving a speech at a Tea Party event and told the crowd that they couldn't "party like it's 1773" until enough conservatives were elected to Congress to make a difference. The reference to the Boston Tea Party was obvious enough to the Los Angeles Times that they didn't bother explaining its significance to readers. Perhaps they should have.

Folks like Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas and PBS host Gwen Ifill apparently thought that Palin had been confused. Moulitsas sarcastically commented, "She's so smart," while Ifill simply said, "ummmmm." You would think that after a year like this, the pundits and journalists would know a bit more about Tea Party history.

Anyway, I thought of that when reading a few of the more breathless accounts of the debate between Delaware Senate candidates Chris Coons and Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell noted that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. It doesn't. The oft-repeated phrase appears in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802.

I'm a strict separationist myself, meaning that I think the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment should be interpreted as strictly as possible. But I've also read enough Supreme Court opinions to know that my view is not universally accepted.

For instance, here's a Washington Post lede from way back in April:

A splintered Supreme Court displayed its deep divisions over the separation of church and state Wednesday, with the court's prevailing conservatives signaling a broader openness to the idea that the Constitution does not require the removal of religious symbols from public land.

So while most reporters and other elites tend to favor a strict separation -- sometimes to the extreme of a "naked public square," that view is not universal among all jurists. That Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey on religious knowledge found that "many Americans think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are," for instance. And the "separation" phrase itself is not, as O'Donnell said, in the Constitution.

But no matter. Reporters took to Twitter to freak out over O'Donnell's statement. Here's a sample from a Wired reporter.

Crowd gasps as O'Donnell reveals ignorance of First Amendment -- http://wapo.st/a4dnDo

And it led to a bunch of stories. I'm not entirely convinced that this particular Senate race deserves, say, 1/1000th of the coverage it has received. Of open seats, it has to be one of the less competitive races out there. But, then again, I didn't quite see the logic in the 24-7 coverage of the Koran burn threat. I'm in the minority on all of these new coverage decisions.

The story fit the preferred narrative for this particular race, though. And other details -- such as Coons' apparent inability to identify the other First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly and petition -- weren't mentioned in the mainstream reports. Although that did make it into a Politico reported "forum" of some kind. It reminds me a bit of the 2008 campaign season, in that regard.

Meanwhile, here's the Associated Press article, for what it's worth. At least that article provides quotes that show what O'Donnell actually said. This Washington Post video that accompanied the story pulled Sherrod-style editing on the debate for dramatic effect. You can see other examples here.

I should disclose, I suppose, that my husband was one of the early people to write against O'Donnell's candidacy and that I have been on record expressing negative views about her. And, further, during this debate with Coons, his Yale Law School education helped him a great deal over O'Donnell's floundering grasp of the 16th amendment and others. And even if her interpretation of the First Amendment was mischaracterized, her defense was still weak.

The fact is that there was more than enough to work with, journalistically speaking, from this debate. But it's only fair to point out that not everyone has the same view of separation of church and state and how the establishment and free exercise clauses should be interpreted. And it's not exactly uncommon to find people who think that the courts have, at times, gone too far in one direction or the other.

To that end, I thought that Elizabeth Tenety's piece for the Washington Post's "On Faith" site did a good job of putting the candidates' First Amendment positions in context of that larger debate.

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