Parties clash on moral issues

by Julia Levy | 10/18/00 5:00am

Since 1791 the United States has barred Congress from creating any law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Not only does freedom of religion have a long-standing role on paper -- it is part of the everyday vocabularies of social action groups, journalists, politicians and even average citizens.

The ambiguities of religious freedom have often fanned the flames of controversy regarding moral issues, though -- and as we move towards the Nov. 7 election, certain moral debates are among the weightiest for voters and are top on the campaign agendas.

Here are the basics on each side on some of these issues:

Gay rights

The religious right -- which is strongly tied to the Republican party -- is adamantly opposed to gay rights, claiming that homosexual practice is a sin. However, questions about the issue throughout the campaigns have not elicited very passionate responses from either of the key players, and candidates' stances on issues like civil unions seems to be weakening.

The biggest break from expectations came during the vice-presidential debate when Republican candidate Dick Cheney -- whose daughter Mary is a lesbian -- verged on saying he favors gay marriage.

"I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kinds of relationships people want to enter into," Cheney said in response to a question about gay marriage at the debate.

He also suggested that the possibility of unions between homosexuals was something for individual states to decide. This stance basically negated the federal Defense of Marriage Act that the Republicans pushed in 1996 that would have banned gay marriage. Cheney's take on the issue also went against the Republican platform, which opposes gay marriage.

Cheney's shifted stance on gays got a positive response from America's premiere gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, and not surprisingly, the religious right and other conservative constituents opposed Cheney's comments.

Bush has not come out strongly against gay marriage. However, in the second presidential debate he said, "I'm not for gay marriage. I think marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman."

He also said, though, that he has been "called a uniter, not a divider" because he supports respecting other people, and he told the audience that sexual orientation is none of his business. He added he supports, "equal rights but not special rights for people," including homosexuals.

Gore voiced his support for a civil unions bill resembling the one Vermont enacted this year, which allows gay couples to receive some of the legal perks of marriage between heterosexuals. Previously in his campaign, he said we should strive to stop discrimination against same-sex domestic partnerships and we should eliminate the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and allow gays to serve openly in the military.

In last week's debate, Gore said he, Joseph Lieberman and Cheney were in agreement on the issue of gay rights.

"I think the three of us have one view, and the governor has another view."

Abortion

Abortion has been a raging partisan and religious battle for at least 20 years in the United States -- with Democrats, including Gore, generally in favor of choice, and Catholics and Republicans, including Bush, typically advocating pro-life stances.

Especially with the late September Food and Drug Administration approval of the abortion pill RU-486, the issue of abortion has entered the spotlight during this campaign season.

Gore commended the FDA when it approved RU-486. Bush, on the other hand, called the FDA "wrong." Without broadcast journalists present, he continued, "I fear that making this abortion pill widespread will make abortions more and more common." He declined to repeat the comment for television cameras.

Bush's pro-life convictions have remained a constant throughout his campaign. He wants to ban all partial birth abortions and generally cut down on the number of abortions performed in America.

His own running-mate, Cheney, caught flack after the vice presidential debate for his comments about the newly FDA-approved abortion pill RU-486. The American Family Association vocally expressed concern after Cheney failed to strongly oppose the drug.

Throughout the campaign, Bush has drawn critics who say he will use his power to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, who could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade or undermine a woman's already-established right to choose in other ways.

Bush counters that the abortion issue will not be a "litmus test" as he selects justices. He has said repeatedly that he will choose justices who strictly interpret the Constitution.

Gore's views have mutated from strongly pro-life to pro-choice in his years as a politician -- he was once strongly doubtful of the procedure.

In 1984, Gore was one of the minority in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of a bill that claimed, "For the purposes of this act, the term 'person' shall include unborn children from the moment of conception."

In letters to constituents and special interest groups, Gore warned against federal abortion funding, in 1983 writing: "It is wrong to spend federal funds for what is arguably the taking of a human life." He used similar language in 1987 as a Senator.

When Gore's previous abortion record emerged earlier this year, he contended that he had changed his view since the 1980s, and now believes firmly that all women should have a right to choose.

He opposes partial birth abortions except in cases when the mother's life is in danger and he said his appointees to the Supreme Court will be pro-choice.

Death penalty

Both candidates support the death penalty, which has been widely linked to religion because of the moral questions it raises.

About 70 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, so candidates have little choice but to back it if they want to win votes. Since the vast majority of Americans believe that the death penalty should exist, the question for voters is which candidate will administer the ultimate penalty fairly and judiciously.

Bush got a lot of press because of the extensive use -- or overuse, as some see it -- of the death penalty during his term as Texas governor.

In last week's debate, Bush told Gore in response to a question on punishing hate crime offenders relating to the murder of James Byrd, "The crime is hate. And they got the ultimate punishment. I'm not exactly sure how you enhance the penalty any more than the death penalty."

Since 1982, when Texas resumed capital punishment, 232 people have been executed. And just this year, Texas is on pace to execute 40 people, which would break the record of 37 executed three years ago.

Gore has advocated using DNA testing techniques to make the death penalty more fair. He has also suggested that the way capital punishment is used in Texas has not been fair.

School prayer

The school prayer issue manifests itself in two ways -- actual prayer in public schools, and school vouchers, which could potentially give parents federal money to send their children to parochial schools.

Bush speaks of the merit of "faith-based programs." He says these programs will help turn back the tide of disintegrating morals in the United States by teaching the nation's youngest members.

Except for when he is directly questioned, Bush avoids using the word "voucher." He opts, instead, for a plan based on financial incentives that he wants to apply to the school system.

In his Sept. 2 education policy speech in California, Bush committed himself to closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students by cracking down on the 35-year-old Title I program.

He also said schools receiving Title I funds must improve within three years. If improvement is not shown in achievement, the government will pull federal funding, and distribute it instead to parents so that they can educate their children in a way they see fit. Some people contend that such distribution of funds could interfere with the separation of church and state because it would be indirectly providing government money to religious institutions if students were to attend parochial schools.

Gore does not advocate faith-based school programs and does not think vouchers belong in schools. He has explained that money that could be spent on vouchers should go to failing public schools so that they can rebuild.

Gore also advocates putting extra money and teachers into schools.

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