Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Can you remember your First Amendment rights?

“You’re telling me that’s in the First Amendment?” Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell said Tuesday night in a debate with Democratic candidate Chris Coons. The question was sparked by Coons’ answer to a previous O’Donnell inquiry about where in the Constitution is the “separation of church and state.”

While it is true that the actual words “separation of church and state” are nowhere to be found within the Constitution, the idea is a longstanding, well-documented, (usually) universally understood interpretation of the First Amendment.

It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The “separation” phrase is traced back to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. The letter was sent to the Danbury Baptists, whom Jefferson was informing of their protected rights while discussing the combined effect of the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, both defined in the First Amendment.

Since 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the amendment to mean that government and religion need to separate for the good of both. This includes the meaning that the government cannot impose religion on Americans.

It is mind-blowing how much civic literacy has devolved among us within the past years. First Amendment Center surveys reveal that most Americans can only name one freedom from the First Amendment, while only one in 25 can recite all five. In MC 401, journalism, advertising and public relations students have to memorize the First Amendment verbatim.

Over the summer, I worked in Philadelphia with the Freedoms Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting civic literacy among today’s students and educators. I loved the work I did and felt like I was accomplishing efforts to allow for a smarter and more informed tomorrow for the children of today. It’s a shame that our representatives can’t help with that effort.

In an effort to fix the event, O’Donnell’s camp claims that she meant, “Where in the Constitution are the wordsseparation of church and state’?”

Ok. I don’t believe it, but all right. Now, who’s going to speak for Coons?

In what was seemingly an ok-big-guy-show-me-what-you-got showdown, O’Donnell asked Coons to name the five freedoms found in the First Amendment. It became apparent that Coons was one among 24 of Americans who couldn’t do so.

These are men and women running our state and for government positions and they can’t even repeat back the five first, basic freedoms allowed to citizens of the United States of America.

Come on, everyone. Speech, religion, press, assembly and petition.

They’re not abstract concepts. They’re not complex ideas that need multiple theories to explain. They are basic rights.

The whole thing kind of brings me back to Jay Leno’s embarrassingly depressing Jaywalking segments. During Jaywalking, Leno would walk up to random people on the street, ask them a question about our government, politics or history, and then wait for them to make complete fools out of themselves and their knowledge-base.

“Who was the first president of the U.S?” … “Benjamin Franklin?”

“What was the Gettysburg Address? Have you heard of it?” … “Of course I’ve heard of it. I don’t know the exact address.”

“You see that flag up there [points to an American flag in the wind], how many stars are on it?” … “Um, it’s moving too fast to count ‘em.”

And so on and so forth. Sadly.

The U.S is a top dog in the world forum, yet countries outside, especially European ones, talk about “those stupid Americans.” Why are we giving them the ammo to prove that?

Honestly, I’ll be the last person to blast America. I love this country and grew up respecting all of the principles on which it was founded. Of course I understand that not everyone may agree with certain aspects of our government’s principles, amendments, laws, etc. I just wish everyone would take the time to remember them… and then protest, bash and debate them.

Debra Flax is a junior majoring in journalism. Her column runs on Thursdays.

More to Discover