Denver, Colorado (CNN) - In an interview with CNN, Colorado's Republican Senatorial nominee Ken Buck made clear he believes in the separation of church and state. He defended comments he made last year during a candidates forum in which he challenged the way courts have interpreted the First Amendment's religious protections.
Buck told CNN, "I have said I agree with the establishment clause. I agree with the idea that there is a separation of church and state. That teachers should not be leading prayer – a particular kind of prayer in classrooms. What I have said is that I think the federal government and we as a society have come too far in trying to separate good organizations that perform good functions for people just based on the fact one has a religious association and one doesn't."
CNN asked Buck to address the issue after a video of him surfaced Monday in which he says, "I disagree strongly with the concept of separation of church and state. It was not written into the Constitution." That video, posted on the left-leaning website ThinkProgress, was taken during a candidates forum last year. In the video he goes on to say "While we have a Constitution that is very strong in the sense that we are not gonna have a religion that's sanctioned by the government, it doesn't mean that we need to have a separation between government and religion. And so that, that concerns me a great deal."
The separation is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, but it has become an accepted governing doctrine.
The campaign of Buck's Democratic opponent, Michael Bennet, sent out a string of emails sending reporters to the video. A Bennet campaign spokesman released a statement saying, "While the Constitution doesn't contain the exact words 'separation of church and state' legal scholars and the courts agree it does prohibit the establishment or endorsement of religion, and that the involvement Buck wants is dangerous."
In the CNN interview Buck argued his words have been taken out of context.
"My problem isn't with separation of church and state. It is with how far we have gone in that area. I think when you have a soup kitchen for example that is run by the Salvation Army which has religious ties in town and you have another soup kitchen in town which is purely secular. For the federal government to give one organization money but not the other because one has ties with a religious group is wrong. The idea is that we need to have compassionate programs for people. And if religious organizations are performing some of those functions without proselytizing then I think the federal government should include both."
He said while government and religion should work together to help society, "we absolutely have to maintain the concept behind the establishment clause. We don't want a religion forced on us by government. There are many functions that religion, that religious organizations perform that I think are important in our society."
Political candidates' views of First Amendment protections first became an issue this cycle when Delaware Republican Senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell – speaking during a debate – questioned whether the Constitution provides for the separation of church and state. She later explained she simply meant that exact phrase isn't included in the founding documents.
In Colorado, Democrats are also firing at Buck for criticizing the use of the term "holiday tree." In that same video he says President Obama has used that term to describe the White House Christmas tree and he thinks it's "just flat wrong."
Buck tells CNN, "I think it is a Christmas tree." But he said he wouldn't press legislation on the matter explaining, "I don't think it is a legislating issue. I think it is a Christmas tree. That is what we have traditionally called it. It is there on Christmas Day. And I think that is what it should be called."
The White House has not changed the name of the White House Christmas tree.
Buck's views on social issues have gained national attention – he opposes abortion in all cases and recently compared homosexuality to alcoholism. The candidate insists these issues are not important to the majority of Colorado voters.
"I'm talking about jobs and I'm talking about spending. I'm not going to sit here and talk about social issues. It is not – it is exactly where my opponent would like to take this debate. He has voted for the health care bill. He has voted for the stimulus bill. He has voted for so many pieces of legislation that he doesn't want to talk about and it is exactly what the voters in this state want to know about," he said.