Tonight is the first debate between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Moderated by NBC News' Lester Holt, experts are estimating an audience of about 100 million viewers, which would put this debate in the top 10 most watched television broadcasts of all time in the United States. Here are three things we'd like see the candidates address in this debate.
1. What do the candidates think about religious exemptions from the law?
This has been a hotly contested issue since the Hobby Lobby and Obergefell rulings. In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held private business could indeed reflect the religious views of their owners, allowing for exemptions from the Affordable Care Act's requirement that no-cost contraception be included in all commercial healthcare plans. And post-Obergefell, religious groups opposed to marriage equality have used so-called "religious freedom" to argue that public accommodations should be exempt from anti-discrimination laws and that public officials should not have to complete marriage licenses for same-sex couples, a la Kim Davis.
In the third section of tonight's debate, "America's Direction," we would like moderator Lester Holt to ask candidates about what they see as the limits of religious freedom.
Donald Trump has come down on all sides of this issue. On September 9, 2015, Trump, commenting on the Kim Davis issue, told Bill O'Reilly that "we are a country of laws and you have to [...] go along with the Supreme Court." Earlier in the month, he told MSNBC's Morning Joe that Davis should, "let her clerks do it." However, in an interview at the 2015 Values Voter Summit, Trump told Michelangelo Signorile of the Huffington Post that he was supported her defiance, saying, "I haven't been opposed to her stand and I think it's fine."
In December, Trump told a conservative media outlet that he would support the so-called "First Amendment Defense Act," a bill that would prevent the federal government from taking action against people who believe marriage is between one man and one woman or that "sexual relations are properly reserved for marriage." Critics say that the bill would allow federal employees to discriminate against same-sex couples, unmarried parents, single parents, or even cohabitating couples.
Trump needs to clarify his stance on this issue.
Clinton, for her part, has said that supports the Equality Act, a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the nation's federal anti-discrimination laws and includes a section that says, "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title." This would prevent the use of RFRA to carve out exemptions to the Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and other federal anti-discrimination laws
We would, however, like Clinton to explicitly say that religious exemptions have no place in civil rights and public accommodation laws.
2. What role should religion play in our government?
Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton told an audience at the National Baptist Convention that the next president of the United States should be "a praying person" and that the nation needs "a president who will pray with you and for you."
This kind of rhetoric, while clearly aimed at courting religious groups, alienated those of us who aren't religious and especially those of us who don't think that a president who is "a praying person" is a positive. The latest survey from PRRI shows that fully one-quarter of Americans are non-religious. However, a recent Pew survey shows that 40% of Americans say that political leaders talk too little about their faith and prayer, compared to 27% who say they talk about it too much (and 26% who say they talk about it the right amount).
Especially with the rhetoric that atheists saw from the Democratic National Committee's leaked emails concerning using Sen. Bernie Sanders' perceived atheism against him during the primary, Clinton needs to make it clear that atheists are welcome in her administration, that prayer is not a necessary component of decision-making, and figure out how talk about her own faith (if she wants) without simultaneously denigrating atheists.
Trump has repeatedly promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, the ban on churches engaging in political activities like endorsing candidates. After initially promising to repeal the Johnson Amendment at his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump has made this the centerpiece of his push to appeal to evangelicals.
While it is true that the Johnson Amendment limits churches' participation in the political realm, it is simply inaccurate to say the law singles out churches for special scrutiny. What is true is that any organization that receives tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from endorsing (or opposing) candidates for elected office.
These groups are still free to educate their members about candidates' positions on relevant issues, carry out voter registration drives, and "get out the vote" as long as those activities are nonpartisan and unbiased.
Donald Trump has so far conflated that requirement with a muzzling of churches. He needs to clarify what he means when he says he wants to allow churches to engage in the political process. Does he mean all 501(c)(3) groups? Or does he just mean churches? Does he really want churches to be able to wade into politics?
3. Use the word "atheist" when you talk about us.
Don't be shy about using the big, scary "A" word. The fact that Texas Senator Ted Cruz was the only person to specifically mention atheists during his discussion of religious freedom at the Republican National Convention was surprising. Atheists and other non-religious voters make up almost a third of the Democratic party's coalition.
It is important for candidates from all parties to lead on the issue of religious pluralism. Using euphemisms to talk about atheists isn't going to fly any longer. With the continued growth of the atheist population, it is no longer acceptable to shy away from the word. More than 30 million Americans don't believe in god. There are more atheists than Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Mormons. The candidates need to recognize that fact and reach out to us.