What About The First Amendment? Looking Toward The Next Presidential Debate

The first presidential debate took place last night, with Republican candidate Donald Trump squaring off against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Who won depends on who you ask.

As expected, topics of discussion consisted mostly of security, jobs and taxes. Given this limited focus, it’s no surprise that neither candidate offered any thoughts last night on the First Amendment issues at the heart of the work we do here at Americans United.

Hopefully the next presdiential debate will include a discussion of the First Amendment. (Credit: Rick T. Wilking/Pool via AP)

So for the next debate on Oct. 9, we hope both Trump and Clinton will offer thoughtful responses on a myriad of matters such as marriage equality, the meaning of “religious freedom,” access to birth control, school vouchers and filling vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trump, of course, already weighed in on some of these topics.

He has repeatedly called for an end to the federal law that prohibits houses of worship and other 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. (Americans United strongly disagrees with this proposal. In fact, we’re holding an entire Week of Action through our Project Fair Play, which encourages clergy to stay out of politics. If you’d like to learn more, tune in for a special round table discussion today at 3 p.m. on Facebook Live).

Trump also offered a plan that would create a massive federal school voucher program. Americans United also opposes that idea, which would divert a whopping $20 billion in federal taxpayer money toward “school choice.”

Last week, Trump said he would sign the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a dangerous bill that, if passed, would allow people who hold the religious belief that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, or that extramarital relations are sinful, to ignore laws that conflict with that belief. Individuals, businesses, health­care providers, taxpayer-funded so­c­i­al service providers and even government employees would be allowed to use FADA to get around non-discrimination protections.

In May, Trump released a list of 11 judges he might nominate to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, then followed it up last week with an additional list of 10 judges he might pick. Many of the picks appeal to the far-right voters who make up the GOP base.

It is clear that Trump’s plans are intended to appeal to the Religious Right, a movement Trump has heavily courted throughout the campaign season. For her part, Clinton has a track record on some of these issues – she opposes vouchers and favors marriage equality – but she’s been silent on others. For example, Clinton hasn’t talked about Trump’s plan to allow pulpit politicking. Given that she has occasionally spoken in churches this election season, it would be interesting to hear her thoughts.   

Church-state separation is an extremely important matter. Voters deserve to know where the candidates stand on this constitutional principle so that they can make a fully informed decision in November. Let’s hope the next debate offers some clarity.