Romney’s record on First Amendment issues: religion and more

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

One in a series of articles on the First Amendment record and views of 2012 presidential candidates. This article is an updated adaptation of an original by Josh Tatum posted Dec. 18, 2007, during the 2008 campaign. Courtney Holliday, a third-year law student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, contributed new research to this article. Since this article first appeared, GOP candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have dropped out.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s record and expressed views, as governor, later as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics and now as presidential candidate, have touched on a number of First Amendment topics.

Gov. Romney

As Massachusetts 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 homosexual parents, which would run counter to the church’s teaching. Opposed by leaders in both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature, the bill never became law.

The bill, called “An Act Protecting Religious Freedom,” was cited in a Dec. 30, 2011, letter from Massachusetts conservative leaders to “conservative friends” published on Romney’s campaign website discussing the candidate’s religious record. According to the group, “Romney correctly pointed out that it is unjust to force a religious agency to violate the tenets of its faith in order to placate a special interest group.”

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.” Announcing his decision, he said, “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 has cited 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.

He did not support a bill to create 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 the legislation.

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.

Records from Romney’s service as governor became a source of controversy in the 2012 campaign when a Boston Globe article suggested that Romney’s administration tried to purge all e-mail records after his term. According to the report, members of the administration took computers with them and replaced e-mail servers. However, the Associated Press later reported, Massachusetts public-records law doesn’t apply to the governor’s office, so there appears to be nothing illegal in the computer removal. Romney said the messages were deleted because they may have contained confidential information. However, on Dec. 6, 2011, Massachusetts announced that previously closed records from the state’s archives would be made publicly available. Ultimately 460 boxes of documents will be available, subject to public-records requests and time for the state to review the requested documents for confidential information.

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 cultural exhibition including a rodeo, sued Salt Lake City, claiming the city’s designated protest zones were inadequate and too far 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 lawsuit noted that the groups had applied for permits 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 said he supported the designated free-speech zones to promote safety and ease traffic flow. 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.

Presidential candidate Romney

In the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Romney has taken a few stances that directly involve 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 three major U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The first, McConnell v. FEC (2003), upheld most of the law. The second, Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC (2006), limited its provisions prohibiting electioneering ads sponsored by corporations or unions within a certain period before an election. Then in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Court partially overruled McConnell and struck down the provisions of the law that restricted independent corporate expenditures. In Citizens United, the Court emphasized the First Amendment rights of corporations to engage in political speech. During a speech in August 2011, Romney responded to an individual’s complaint about the ruling by saying, “Corporations are people, my friend.”

In 2007, Romney said, “the American people should be free to advocate for their candidates and their positions without burdensome limitations.” Instead, he said 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, 2008, 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.”

On the 2012 campaign trail, Romney has continued to oppose campaign-finance regulations, supporting the ability of candidates to collect unlimited donations instead of allowing campaigns to be indirectly supported by money from super PACs. “Let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words,” Romney said in the Jan. 16, 2012, debate in South Carolina.

On the Internet-regulation front, Romney opposes the Stop Online Privacy Act. In the Jan. 19 South Carolina debate, Romney warned of the bill’s dangers. “The law as written is far too intrusive, far too expansive, far too threatening to freedom of speech and movement of information across the Internet,” he said. “It would have a potentially depressing impact on one of the fastest-growing industries in America, which is the Internet and all those industries connected to it.”

Concerning regulation of indecency in the media, Romney proposed in the 2008 campaign 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 2008, 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 promised 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. In 2012, Romney provided a statement reinforcing these views to Morality in Media, saying promoting strong values “includes strict enforcement of our nation’s obscenity laws, as well as the promotion of parental software controls that guard our children from Internet pornography.”

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.”

On a topic involving public information, Romney sided in May 2011 with the Obama administration’s decision not to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body. “It’s best not to release the photo because it has the potential to incite retaliatory violence against Americans,” he said in a statement.

Regarding relations with the press on the campaign trail, see Romney keeps news media at bay as he sticks to script

Romney on religion

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 fourth 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. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the 2012 race, is also Mormon.

Throughout his campaigns, Romney has tried to avoid focusing on his specific religious beliefs. In the 2008 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 2007, 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 in 2007 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.”

In 2011, when evangelical Pastor Robert Jeffress criticized Romney by calling Mormonism was a cult, Romney did not address Mormonism in his response, instead advocating religious tolerance. “The blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate,” Romney said. “The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us. Let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart. We have important work to accomplish,” he told a group of Christian conservative voters in Iowa after Jeffress’ remarks.

During the 2008 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, in which Kennedy confronted public fears and criticisms of his Roman Catholic faith. 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, 2007, Romney delivered his much-anticipated speech, “Faith in America.” In it, he simultaneously sought to diffuse concerns about the effect 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 mention atheists or agnostics, and condemned 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.

Candidate Romney has advocated funding of faith-based initiatives as long as “they are performing a non-faith role.”

In the 2012 campaign, Romney has continued to speak in favor of religious freedom. After the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against a Michigan teacher’s challenge to her firing from a Lutheran Church-sponsored school in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, Romney voiced his support of the decision to the audience at a Faith and Freedom Coalition event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., saying, “We are very fortunate to have people who are willing to stand up for religious tolerance and religious liberty and the First Amendment of this Constitution in this country.”

Romney has expressed concern about the Obama administration’s treatment of religious liberty, criticizing the Department of Health and Human Service’s decision to require schools and hospitals, including those that are run by the Catholic Church and other faith groups, to cover contraception under their employee insurance plans.

“Think what that does to people in faiths that do not share those views. This is a violation of conscience. We must have a president who is willing to protect America’s first right — a right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience,” Romney said at a Feb. 6 rally in Colorado.

In a February town hall in Michigan, Romney went further to attack Obama’s overall stance on religious liberty, accusing him of promoting a secular agenda.

“Unfortunately, possibly because of the people the president hangs around with, and their agenda, their secular agenda — they have fought against religion,” he said.

Romney uncharacteristically mentioned his own faith at the town hall, telling the crowd that freedom of religion is important to him because he is “someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance.”

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