Gingrich claims religious liberty as pillar of campaign

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

One in a series of articles on the First Amendment record and views of 2012 presidential candidates.

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich’s stances as a presidential candidate and actions in Congress have implicated a few key First Amendment issues.

In the House of Representatives

Gingrich was not heavily involved with First Amendment issues during his tenure (1979-1999) in the House of Representatives. However, he did support at least two First Amendment-related initiatives, school vouchers and religious freedom, and continues to do so, in his 2012 Republicans presidential campaign.

Gingrich co-sponsored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which provides that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless it can show that the burden is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 as applied to state and local governments but is still applicable to the federal government.

Gingrich led the House in passing legislation to provide school vouchers for students in Washington, D.C. The bill, vetoed by President Bill Clinton in May 1998, would have allowed children to use the vouchers for religious and other private schools. After the veto Gingrich said the students in D.C. were “at risk of being destroyed by bureaucracies that refuse to reform.”

With Gingrich as speaker, the House passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which became law in 1996. DOMA amends U.S. Code by adding a section that defines ‘marriage’ as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and ‘spouse’  as a “person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Though Gingrich takes credit for DOMA in campaign materials, he did not co-sponsor the bill and was absent from the vote.

On the issue of public records, Speaker Gingrich spoke on behalf of a House resolution to make material from the Judiciary Committee’s investigation of President Clinton public after a report from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Even though grand jury testimony is not typically a public record, once Congress received such material it could decide whether or not to make it public. The House Judiciary Committee ultimately decided to release Clinton’s grand jury testimony and 2,800 pages of supporting documents.

Candidate Gingrich

Gingrich has made religious liberty a pillar of his campaign. In December 2011, he announced that he would propose an executive order creating a presidential commission on religious freedom. On his 2012 campaign website, Gingrich lists “Protecting Life and Religious Liberty and Standing Up to Activist Judges” as one of his primary issues.

Gingrich claims that “secular radicals are trying to remove ‘our Creator’ — the source of our rights — from public life.”  Among his goals:

  • “Protect religious expression in the public square such as crosses, crèches, and menorahs.”
  • “Protect the rights of home-schooled children by ensuring they have the same access to taxpayer funded, extracurricular educational opportunities as any public school student.”
  • “Protect the rights of teachers to use historical examples involving religion in their classroom [and to answer] questions about religion or [discuss] it objectively in the classroom.”

Gingrich continues to advocate for school vouchers, and includes “empower[ing] parents to pick the right school for their child” as part of the education plan described on his website.

Gingrich has been vocal in his support of initiatives opposing gay marriage and abortion. In December 2011, Gingrich wrote to the Family Leader, a Christian-based family values organization, that “as President, I will vigorously enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, which was enacted under my leadership as Speaker of the House, and ensure compliance with its provisions, especially in the military … I will support sending a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the states for ratification. I will oppose any judicial, bureaucratic, or legislative effort to define marriage in any manner other than as between one man and one woman.”

He also wrote that he would reinstate President Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City policy, which does not allow abortions overseas to be funded by U.S. taxpayers, and that he would “defund Planned Parenthood so that no taxpayer dollars are being used to fund abortions but rather transfer the money so it is used to promote adoption and other pro-family policies.”

In saying that he would also defend religious liberty and “free expression of believers,” Gingrich wrote that he would “promote legislation that protects the right to conscience for healthcare workers so they are not compelled to perform abortions and other procedures that violate their religious teachings.”

In January 2012, Gingrich was criticized for his comments in South Carolina regarding Islam. Asked whether he would endorse a Muslim presidential candidate, Gingrich said, “It would depend entirely on whether they would commit in public to give up Shariah … . A truly modern person who happened to worship Allah would not be a threat; a person who belonged to any kind of belief in Shariah, any effort to impose it on the rest of us, would be a mortal threat.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations responded by accusing Gingrich of “segregat[ing] our citizens by faith” and arguing that following Shariah law is protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.

During the controversy in 2010 over plans to build an Islamic center near ground zero in New York City, Gingrich said locating it there was akin to placing a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.

Concerning campaign finance, Gingrich has spoken in favor of fewer restrictions on campaign donations as long as the source of the money is identified.

“The practical reality is that people who want to influence politics with money can,” Gingrich told a crowd in New Hampshire in January. “I would like to see a simple change in election law where anyone could give as much money to any candidate as they wanted, as long as it is reported on the Internet that day.”

Gingrich suggested the same policy in 2006 when he was considering a run in the 2008 election. Speaking at the Nackey Scripps Loeb First Amendment Awards Honors dinner in 2006, Gingrich advocated the elimination of the McCain-Feingold campaign law.

Although as speaker Gingrich favored the release of records pertaining to President Clinton’s investigation, he has not been forthcoming with those from his own. In February, the Gingrich campaign refused a request from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to ask the Department of Justice to release records from the House Ethics Committee’s investigation of Gingrich’s tenure as speaker. A campaign spokesman for Gingrich told the Associated Press that fulfilling the request would start a “wild goose chase.”

On other issues:

  • Gingrich joined fellow Republican candidates in opposing the recently proposed online anti-piracy legislation. During the January 2012 CNN debate in South Carolina, Gingrich said, “The idea that we are going to preemptively censor the Internet on behalf of corporations seems like to me the exactly wrong thing to do.”
  • Gingrich has, however, spoken in favor of Internet monitoring to fight terrorism. In 2006, Gingrich said in his speech at the Loeb First Amendment dinner, “This is a serious, long-term war, and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country. It will lead us to learn how to close down every Web site that is dangerous.”
  • After NBC News’ Brian Williams requested that applause be held until commercial breaks in the Jan. 24, debate, Gingrich said that he would not participate in future debates with similar rules. Gingrich told “Fox and Friends” that the rule prevented free speech. “I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong. And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate,” he said. “The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.”
  • Although he has expressed disapproval of protests, referring to President Barack Obama’s community activism as “radical” and telling participants from the Occupy Wall Street movement to “Go get a job, right after you take a bath,” Gingrich participated in protests in the past. According to a January 2012 Reuters report, as a graduate student at Tulane University Gingrich led demonstrations against censorship of nude photographs in a campus literary magazine.

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