In October of last year, Rabbi Saperstein, the Director of the RAC and an expert on church-state law, and Oliver Thomas, a noted First Amendment scholar and lawyer, partnered to lay out five rules candidates and the public should follow concerning faith in the upcoming election. The op-ed does not seek to remove religion from politics, but rather it discusses appropriate and inappropriate uses of faith in political campaigns.
For instance, the Constitution forbids the use of an explicit or implicit religious test for office, and tax regulations prohibit religious leaders from coercing citizens to vote in a specific manner by invoking religion. While clergy have the right, and obligation, to inform their congregants about the social issues we face today, as 501(c)(3) organizations they are forbidden from opposing or supporting political candidates.
But we all know that faith has been, and will continue to be, a prominent subject in the current presidential election. Unfounded speculation over President Obama’s faith continues to swirl, as does uneasiness around Gov. Romney’s Mormon faith. So, what have been some of the hot stories about religion in the race for the White House lately?
- Last Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and impressed upon the churchgoers that their political involvement remains essential to her husband’s campaign. President Obama received 96% of the black vote in the 2008 election.
- Gov. Romney and his family, devout Mormons, attend church for up to three hours most Sundays, and he previously served as the equivalent to a bishop in the Mormon church. While the Mormon faith is the fastest growing religion in the nation, it continues to be viewed with suspicion in the United States. Voters’ concerns about Gov. Romney’s Mormonism invoke memories of similar concerns about President Kennedy’s Catholicism and the potential for papal influence.
- Education policy has made a surprising comeback as an election issue in the form of vouchers, federal money which can be used for tuition at private and religious schools. Gov. Romney announced his strong support for school voucher programs and President Obama went against his stated opposition to vouchers and reauthorized funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only voucher program run by the federal government.
- The Supreme Court’s historic ruling on President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signals new battles down the road, including battles drawn on religious lines over contraception and reproductive health coverage.
As religion remains as pervasive as ever in our political system, it is important to remember that while our nation is founded upon religious freedom, the government is forbidden from favoring one religion over another, or religion over no religion, and cannot interfere with personal expression of faith. The Reform Movement remains committed to protecting religious freedom and preserving the separation of church and state, while recognizing that the faith of political candidates can be discussed appropriately.