‘First Freedom First’

A reader pointed me to FirstFreedomFirst.org, a project of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The site encourages people to ask candidates ten questions.

First Freedom asks whether candidates believe that “America is a ‘Christian Nation’,” or, alternately, that “everyone’s religious freedom needs to be protected by what Thomas Jefferson called ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state.” First Freedom also asks candidates whether they believe that “one’s right to disbelieve in God is protected” by law. Those questions are fine.

Unfortunately, other questions are ambiguous or otherwise problematic. Moreover, they are not nearly as useful as the five questions that I have proposed.

First Freedom does not ask any question specifically about abortion. Its final question asks, “What should guide our policies on public health and medical research: science or religion?” But various Christians can and do rationalize bans on abortion and stem-cell research on the (alleged) basis of “science,” so the question accomplishes little.

I, on the other hand, ask candidates to declare whether they “Oppose efforts to restrict the legal right of adult women to obtain an abortion” and “Oppose bans on embryonic stem-cell research.”

Even worse, First Freedom implies that it’s fine for government to forcibly transfer wealth to religious groups. The site asks, “Should ‘faith-based’ charities that receive public funds be allowed to discriminate against employees or applicants based on religious beliefs?” But forcing people to fund “‘faith-based’ charities” violates the rights of those who do not wish to fund such organizations. That is why I ask whether candidates “Oppose the spending of tax dollars on programs with religious affiliations, such as ‘faith-based’ welfare.” Freedom of religion entails the right not to fund religious groups.

First Freedom asks, “Do you think my pharmacist should be allowed to deny me doctor-prescribed medications based on his or her religious beliefs?” “Allowed,” by whom? The question implies that pharmacists must be subjected to federal controls. My view is that pharmacists have the right to conduct business however they see fit (so long as they do not damage their clients through fraud, negligence, or other abuses); what medicines a pharmacist sells should be strictly up to that pharmacist. If you don’t like the policies of a particular pharmacist, you are free do to business with another pharmacist and to publicly criticize the one you don’t like. The separation of church and state implies that the state cannot force business owners to act against their religious beliefs.

First Freedom asks, “Do you think Houses of Worship should be allowed to endorse political candidates and retain their tax exempt status?” The thrust of the question is fine, given modern laws, yet my deeper problem is with the tax laws. I don’t think any advocacy group should be subjected to taxation or federal rules. But, then again, I do not think that any business or group should be subject to taxation; every group should be “tax exempt” and free from federal rules. (I’m not a a fan of taxation in general, but I think taxing individuals only would be a vast improvement over taxing individuals as well as groups.)

First Freedom asks two questions about “public” schools: “Do you think public schools should sponsor school prayer or, as a parent, should this choice be left to me? Would you support a law that mandates teaching creationism in my child’s public school science classes?” These questions are pretty good, but the problem lies with the definition of a “public” school. While my questions don’t include a specific reference to school prayer, my question about creationism is more precise: I ask whether candidates “Oppose the spending of tax dollars to teach creationism and/or intelligent design as science.”

First Freedom asks, “Will you respect the rights of those in our diverse communities of faith who deem same-gender marriage to be consistent with their religious creed?” This is a poor question because it focuses on rights of conscience rather than rights of contract. What about people who are not part of “diverse communities of faith?” The point is that contract law — of which marriage law is a type — ought not be driven by religious dogma. I favor “domestic partnerships” for gay couples because they have the right to enter contractual relationships just as heterosexual couples do.

However pleased I am to see First Freedom taking up the fight for the separation of church and state, the organization cannot be very effective until it develops a consistent set of principles.

One thought on “‘First Freedom First’”

  1. Ari: I think that you have misunderstood a number of the issues.For example, we do not think that it’s fine for government to forcibly transfer wealth to religious groups. Many of the questions are designed to make you think about the issue and pose provocative questions. Please go to http://www.firstfreedomfirst and take a look at each of the ‘issues’–just click on the issue button. The explanations are clear. You may or may not agree with them but please, try to understand what we are saying. The questions to candidates are, again, designed to provoke dialogue. Clearly, you need to ask those questions in a manner that is most comfortable to you. Donna

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