Separation of church and state (SOC) is a major issue for secularists. That’s why we invited Gordon Fisher, Iowa lawyer, volunteer with the Obama/Biden campaign, and former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, to speak with us at our Oct 23 meeting.
Surprisingly, the most lively conversation was on education. The idea suggested by a club member was: should we spend less on struggling students and more on the gifted?
Gordon is willing come out and speak to us again after the election. He asked to be added to our mailing list and was invited to come to future meetings, along with his wife, Monica. His blog on Iowan and national politics is Iowa True Blue. He will get back to us on Obama’s stance on three topics: the defense of marriage act, federal funding of boy scouts, and flag burning.
Here is approximate transcript of the Q & A…
Q – Obama supports Faith Based initiatives. What does this mean? Was it just political? There has been no accountability for how money was used.
A – Faith based programs will receive federal funding under certain conditions. Problems under Bush are not going to happen under Obama. Bush specifically allowed the programs to ignore federal laws. Obama will continue to provide funding because we need everyone working on poverty, child care, health care, housing, etc. But, this will come with strict guidelines. If organization receives one penny of federal funding, have to follow federal law with regard to hiring (to prevent discrimination), and others. Second, they cannot use any funding to proselytize. This was “muddy” under Bush. Wall between church and state became more of a “lego wall”. Also, there will be better oversight to ensure that federal funding is properly used.
Q – Won’t they just proselytize anyway?
A – Bush issued executive orders to change laws on proselytizing and hiring. Obama will replace those executive orders with new ones enforcing laws. These organizations will not be able to proselytize under the law.
Q – Is that enforceable?
A – Settlement agreements always include confidentiality agreements. How to enforce them? How to ensure that they will actually do what they say? If they break the agreement, they will forfeit the settlement. The same may apply to faith based initiatives and programs. If they break agreement, they will lose funding.
Q – Obama is against gay marriage. What is his stance on civil unions?
A – They would enjoy same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Same as marriage except in name.
Q – What is the point of calling it civil union and not marriage?
A – Society at large is not ready to call it marriage. This is a necessary in between step.
Q – Will he repeal defense of marriage act? To make gay marriage legal at the federal level?
A – Don’t know. Title 7 is the big federal anti-discrimination law, Obama would add sexual orientation to the law.
Q – Legalization of gay marriage is creeping across US. What does Obama think?
A – Defense of marriage act says states can define marriage but can’t impose that on other states. Contrary to full faith and credit act that said contracts in one state recognized in all other states. Not sure what Obama thinks. “Creeping” has negative connotation – it is exciting that so many states are fighting the next civil rights battle. Iowa is next. Varnum v. Polk County District Court struck down anti-gay-marriage laws as unconstitutional – now in Iowa Supreme Court. Consequences will be huge – “marriage for all, not just marriage for some”. Iowa is in forefront of the civil rights battle. If the decision is upheld, it will take years to get a constitutional amendment. Iowans will be conservative, in the sense that they will be responsible and not amend the constitution.
Q – What does Obama think about healthcare workers being allowed to refuse services based on “conscience”? Need to find middle ground between extremes. Can’t allow providers to refuse service, but can’t really require providers to provide service (not all ob-gyn perform abortions). Pharmacists are different from doctors. They simply follow the orders of the physicians.
A – Obama hasn’t mentioned it specifically, but in Iowa he answered a question about pharmacists who were not dispensing birth control. He didn’t think that was responsible of them. Health care providers are supposed to provide comfort and aid to whomever requests it.
Q – Obama wants more money for education. Head start, etc. Disparity between special education for “bottom of the curve” to “top of the curve”. Too much spent on bottom of curve relative to top of curve. Not enough money to go around at all. So much is going to help people catch up instead of going to help kids achieve. Maybe our country would be better off if we spent more on students that are doing well. But need to improve quality of life for those who are struggling.
A – More money for education across the board including more for gifted. Obama hasn’t said anything on this specific issue. We could shift money away from people who are really struggling to the gifted, but could cause a two-tiered education system worse than we already have.
Q – What does Obama think about affirmative action? It reinforces minority status.
A – Obama supports it. Having a serious African American candidate for president is still disconnected from the average people who are affected by Affirmative Action. Obama hasn’t emphasized race in his campaign. Working to tear down social constructs of race, in a positive way.
Q – Compare that to sexism claims of McCain campaign.
A – The Republican campaign is based a lot on divisive things like small town vs big city. Obama is forging ahead for a post-race society. Wants to consider character, not color of skin.
Q – Obama’s stance on federal money for boy scouts?
A – Has to get back to us.
Q – Why is being elite and smart considered bad? Compare McCain and Obama’s responses to the question of “what is evil?” at the Saddleback Forum.
A – The ideas of elitism and such sells with a minority in the US. A majority agrees that having a smart president is a good thing. For Obama, SOC is not just a philosophical question. It is a legal question that he understands intimately, having studied and taught it. Having a constitutional scholar as president would do much for SOC.
Q – Obama had a speech saying that arguing religious principles as legislation is not wrong, as long as the principles can be argued in other than religious terms. Religion is not a valid argument in legislative arena.
A – There is no rational discourse after religion is invoked. Obama is committed to rational discourse.
Q – In Europe there is a populist anti-elitist movement, but they are not religious like Americans. If someone very religious tried to get elected in Northern Europe, they would be laughed at.
A – Large difference between their and our democracies.
Q – What does Obama think about prayer in schools, in god we trust on money, under god in pledge? Pledge is basically a prayer, and so is moment of silence.
A – Obama against prayer in schools because of diversity issues. Can’t force people to pray one way or another. The other two might be too deeply rooted, have lost meaning, mostly symbolic. Probably not issues in Obama administration.
Q – Flag burning?
A – Obama opposes ban on flag burning, but not 100% sure. Clinton co-sponsored bill to ban it.
Q – Why did the Republicans pick Sarah Palin? No vetting.
A – The news media at first were gaga over her. I argued with reporters about her reality before it all came out. No one from her colleges remembered her, lightweight background. Haven’t yet seen an insider account of how she was chosen. McCain wanted Joe Lieberman, but the Republican party said no. Next, he looked at Tom Ridge and they said no (because he is pro-choice).
Q – Patriot Act?
A – With his background in constitutional law, he will certainly change it. Bush had many executive orders that made the Patriot act more extreme. They will be reviewed thoroughly. Civil liberties and civil rights have taken a beating.
Q – Guantanamo Bay? Torture?
A – Will close it. Oppose torture.
Q – Why did Obama vote yea on the FISA bill (granting immunities to telecom companies)?
A – Not sure.
Q – Gun control? Assault rifles?
A – In Chicago, sponsored a lot of gun control measures. Since he became a US Senator, he has talked about the importance of the 2nd amendment and hunters being allowed to have guns, since he now has a less narrow constituency. While upholding the 2nd amendment, there is no reason for assault rifles.