Oh dear, more confusion.
The context of her remarks were discussing what a local school board can do, and she said that separation of church and state is not in the constitution. If she meant textually, she’s correct, indeed, obviously so. The phrase itself does not occur, though that isn’t so important. Jefferson, from whom we get the phrase more or less, thought that the concept was in there somewhere despite the absence of the phrase. But if by the concept you mean the concept that no government entity, from local to federal, may engage in acts of establishment, then no, that is not in the First Amendment. C’mon, people, how could it be? What are the first five words of the First Amendment?
“Congress shall make no law.”
What about the concept? Does this text at least evince a general antipathy toward religion/government entanglement? It does not. Because an earlier draft was rejected and the reason why was because states (e. g., New Hampshire) which had established state churches feared it would make their state churches unconstitutional. Hence the wrinkle of the ratification draft “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” No implications for the unconstitutionality of state-level establishment exist, other than that the federal level cannot establish, or disestablish, state-level churches.
In 1833, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the question of whether the Bill of Rights applied to the states. Its answer was unequivocal. No, said the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights “contain[s] no expression indicating an intention to apply them to the State governments. This court cannot so apply them.” Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243, 250.
This is one of the reasons the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted, and why it is one of the most important pieces of the Constitution. For after emancipation, the re-admitted former Confederate states strove to re-create slavery in all but name, by way of the notorious “Black Codes” and no court could hold that such laws violated the federal constitution because, under Barron, they didn’t. They couldn’t. So our Second Founders, the Reconstruction Republicans in Congress, drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, which contained the following words, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Well, what’s a privilege or an immunity of national citizenship? Senator Howard explained that they included “the personal rights guarantied and secured by the first eight amendments of the Constitution”, and you can see this for yourself.
Now this is tricky, for Senator Howard makes it clear that these provisions are not co-extensive with the first eight amendments, as there are other provisions, for example, those contained in “the second section of the fourth article” of the Constitution. Conceivably, not all provisions of the first eight amendments are included. But happily, we have a mechanism for resolving such questions of interpretation. It is called the Supreme Court.
And in 1947, it said, in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was among those provisions “incorporated” into the Fourteenth Amendment and applied against the states.
Can reasonable people differ about whether the Everson court understood the intent behind the Fourteenth correctly? Sure. Does the absence of the words “separation of church and state” from the First Amendment, or the presence of the word “Congress,” prove a damn thing about what the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to do? Not a whit.
In Ms. O’Donnell’s defense, this is a tenable discussion. Her claim that it is a core constitutional value that the federal government should not be “getting into the business of the local communities” would probably be at least questioned by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, or the ghosts of the Union soldiers who died on the battlefield, precisely to get into the business of local communities, where those communities had failed to uphold core constitutional values. And it does not inspire confidence that when a panelist asked her what she thought of the Fourteenth Amendment, she seemed to not know what it is.
Alas, she’s not alone.