One in a series of articles on the First Amendment record and views of
2008 presidential candidates.
Voters have a lot to consider when it comes to anticipating how well a President Romney would respect First Amendment protections.
Mitt Romney has accumulated a record from his time as head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, governor of Massachusetts and candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Also on many people's minds is what has been called "the Mormon question."
Gov. Romney’s record
While he was governor from 2002 to 2006, Romney proposed legislation that would have exempted religious organizations from having to provide adoption services to same-sex couples. Romney made the proposal after Catholic Charities announced it was ending its adoption services in Massachusetts rather than be forced to place children with gay parents, based on the church’s teaching. Met with opposition from leaders in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature, the bill never became law.
In 2005, Romney abandoned plans to exempt Catholic-run hospitals from a state law that requires all hospitals to make the morning-after pill available to “each female rape victim.” At the time he announced his decision, he stated, "I think, in my personal view, it's the right thing for hospitals to provide information and access to emergency contraception to anyone who is a victim of rape."
Romney showed that his Mormonism did not dictate his decisions as governor when he played a role in the historic repeal of part of Massachusetts’ “blue laws.” Despite his church’s teachings prohibiting consumption of alcohol or working on the Sabbath, Romney signed legislation in 2003 permitting liquor sales on Sundays. Romney frequently cites this as an example of how he separated his faith from his secular responsibilities.
Several pieces of legislation related to speech, assembly and press crossed Gov. Romney’s desk. For instance, he did not support a bill that created 35-foot protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics in his state. Within a year of Romney’s leaving office, his successor, Deval Patrick, signed legislation making the 35-foot buffer law.
In the area of campaign finance, Romney vetoed a 2006 bill that would have repealed a ban on printing, publishing or distributing any poster or circular “designed to aid or defeat any candidate for nomination or election to any public office” without identifying individuals who issued or were otherwise responsible for the publication.
Romney as head of 2002 Winter Olympics
Before being elected governor of Massachusetts, Romney served as president and CEO of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where he had to decide on some speech and assembly issues.
A pair of animal-rights groups, objecting to a Western cultural exhibition including a rodeo, sued Salt Lake City, claimed the city’s designated protest zones were inadequate and too far removed from the events. When the city waited until four days before the Olympics began to grant permits to the groups, they revised their claims to include the city’s delay. The suit pointed out that the groups applied almost a year before the games started. The 2002 games occurred in February, just six months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, Romney commented that he supported the designated free-speech zones to facilitate traffic flow and safety. Although the decisions regarding outside protesters fell on city officials, it was later reported that the Olympic committee asked the city to remove two protest zones — which were only large enough to hold 10 people each — located inside the Olympic square. An Olympic committee spokesperson denied that the group made the request.
In addition to the free-speech zones, Romney took a stance on public standards when he set a firm policy on what types of music to play during certain events. For instance, he prohibited music popular among snowboarders from the snowboarding competition because he deemed it too profane.
In the campaign, Romney has taken a few stances that directly apply First Amendment principles.
The strongest of these is his position against the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law: He advocates its repeal. Since 2003 the law, which bans corporate, union and unlimited donations to national political parties, has been the center of controversy, involving two major U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The first, McConnell v. FEC, upheld most of the law, and the second, Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, limited its provisions prohibiting electioneering ads sponsored by corporations or unions within a certain period before an election.
Romney says “the American people should be free to advocate for their candidates and their positions without burdensome limitations.” Instead, he supports reforms “that promote transparency and disclosure, preserve grassroots activism and protect the ability to criticize or endorse current officeholders and candidates.” He calls McCain-Feingold “burdensome” and “riddled with shortcomings.”
In a debate with other GOP candidates at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Jan. 30, Romney attacked Sen. John McCain of Arizona as "co-author of McCain-Feingold, which I think took a whack at the First Amendment and I do believe, as well, hurt our party pretty significantly. And I think it's made money have an even greater influence in politics today, not less influence."
Romney has also proposed a set of policies called the “Ocean’s Initiatives,” named for a metaphorical image of the world as an ocean in which America’s children swim and that, in Romney’s view, is polluted by inappropriate material in the media and elsewhere. In remarks in April, Romney described the goals of the Ocean’s Initiatives: “I’d like to see us clean up the water in which our kids are swimming. I’d like to keep pornography from coming up on their computers. I’d like to keep drugs off the streets. I’d like to see less violence and sex on TV and in video games and in movies. And if we get serious about this, we can actually do a great deal to clean up the water in which our kids and our grandkids are swimming.”
He promises to work with computer companies to ensure all new computers have optional parental-control software and to increase the distribution of controls for existing computers. He also would call on the Justice Department to enforce federal obscenity laws prohibiting interstate trafficking of obscene materials, laws he maintains have not been adequately enforced.
Most strongly, Romney proposes a “One Strike and You’re Ours” law, which would include tough penalties for first-time offenders convicted of using the Internet to sexually assault children. Such penalties would include both “stiff” jail sentences and lifetime tracking using GPS technology, “so we know where they are forever.”
Romney on religion
Candidate Romney has expressed views on matters of religion as well. For example, he advocates continuing and strengthening President Bush’s faith-based initiatives.
One of the most consistent issues mentioned in association with candidate Romney is the fact that he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney has observed that he has a “comma problem” — that is, journalists always seem to follow his name with a comma, the word “Mormon” and another comma. This is in part because Romney is only the third serious presidential candidate of the Mormon faith. His father, George Romney, lost the Republican nomination to Richard Nixon in 1968, and Mo Udall lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Throughout his campaign, Romney has tried to avoid directly addressing his beliefs. In the campaign’s early stages, he regularly told jokes about Mormonism. On the Don Imus show in 2006, Romney said, "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman," in reference to the former polygamous practices of Mormons, including some of his ancestors. On the Jay Leno “Tonight Show” in May, Romney poked fun at Mormons’ clean-cut image when he said, “You know, Jay, I like to kick back and have a good time, but you’re not going to hear about it — I always say, ‘What goes on in Disneyland, stays in Disneyland.’”
When challenged about particular tenets of his faith, Romney frequently refers the questioner to church officials. For example, when CBS’s Bob Schieffer asked about the belief held by Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri, Romney told the “Face the Nation” host that LDS leaders were “probably the right folks to give you the answers to questions related to a bunch of Mormon teachings … . But what I can tell you is that the values of my faith are founded on Judeo-Christian principles.”
During the campaign, observers and supporters alike waited to see if Romney would make a speech comparable to President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Only after former Southern Baptist pastor and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took an unexpected lead in Iowa caucus polls did Romney decide to confront the religion issue. On Dec. 6 Romney delivered the much-anticipated speech, titled “Faith in America.” In it, he simultaneously sought to diffuse concerns about the impact his faith would have on his presidency and advocated for religion to play a strong role in public life.
Using the word “Mormon” only once in the speech, Romney avoided any discussion of the details of his personal faith. Instead, he conveyed a message of religious pluralism, praising the virtues of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jews and Muslims. He did not, however, praise atheists or agnostics but did condemn those who advocate “the religion of secularism.”
The speech also opposed any ideas of removing the acknowledgement of God from the public square. “We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust,” Romney insisted. “We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders — in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our Pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, Nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”
Romney reminded listeners of Kennedy’s speech, given after he had gained the Democratic nomination. Echoing the first Roman Catholic president’s words, Romney made a promise that the leaders of his church would not dictate any decision he might make if elected. Unlike Kennedy, however, Romney framed the question by stating that his oath of office would be the highest duty to God. Kennedy, on the other hand, promised that if he ever encountered a situation in which his office forced him to choose between his conscience and the national interest, he would resign from the White House.
Josh Tatum is a third-year law student and Master's of Divinity candidate at Vanderbilt University.