In the wake of tea party candidate Christine O'Donnell's comments on the First Amendment in a debate with her Democratic rival, Chris Coons, numerous media outlets (including this one) ran stories about O'Donnell's apparent lack of knowledge about the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Very quickly, however, other media sources, such as Rush Limbaugh, forcefully argued that O'Donnell was correct in that the literal words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the U.S. Constitution.
"What she was talking about was this idiot Coons talking about 'the separation of church and state,' " Limbaugh argued on his radio program. "She was saying, 'Are you telling me separation of church and state's in the Constitution?' because it isn't."
After posting our own story, hundreds of Surge Desk readers posted comments agreeing with Limbaugh's assessment.
"I am appalled at the ignorance of the media and the members of the law school!" a reader named Mary Carol wrote. "Christine O'Donnell has it right! And I want HER defending me and the Constitution, not the kool-aid drinking elites who voted for 'change'!"
A reader posting under the screen name skyhawk66r stated, "The First Amendment states: 'Congress shall make no law establishing of religion.' It says NOTHING about separation of church and state. This is the mantra employed by secularists that are trying to remove the mention of God from every facet of our lives. That was not the intent of the framers All those who are so quick to criticize Ms O'Donnell should pick up a copy of the Constitution and you all owe her an apology."
To be clear, the actual language of the 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."
But beyond our own media coverage of the debate, some readers took issue with the audience's reaction as well:
"The laughter that rang out at one point during the O'Donnell-Coons debate illustrates a big problem with school children in this country -- most colleges are turning out a band of liberals who lack an understanding of history and civics and, in the case of most law schools -- graduates who are not well-informed on constitutional law," wrote a commenter who identified himself as Don.
Leaving aside the entirely valid arguments over how the U.S. Supreme court has interpreted the establishment clause in recent decades, what's interesting about the debate over what literal words that appear in the First Amendment is the need to interpret the meaning of O'Donnell's words. After all, never does O'Donnell herself say "the words separation of church and state don't appear in the Constitution," she merely questions whether they do.
In fact, a review of the debate footage shows that when Coons gave an approximate yet accurate summation of the first part of the establishment clause, "Government shall make no establishment of religion," O'Donnell responded by asking, "That's in the First Amendment?" The exchange takes place at the 4:40 mark in the video below.
Indeed, O'Donnell may have been further rhetorically baiting her opponent to emphasize her displeasure with the court's modern-era insistence that religion and government be kept separate in a variety of arenas such as the public schools, but that too is subject to interpretation.
Lastly, CNN's Anderson Cooper recently took a deeper look at O'Donnell's repeated claims of constitutional expertise and filed the following blistering report, noting that beyond the First Amendment, O'Donnell needed to be reminded of what the 14th and 16th said, despite claiming to have conducted "a deep analysis" of the founding document.
Follow Surge Desk on Twitter.