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Legislation related to religion and morality

How legislators decide to vote on bills
with a moral or religious component

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There appears to be no consensus on this topic. Lawmakers may follow any of the following criteria (and probably others as well) before deciding how to vote on a bill. Most probably follow a mixture of these principles:

bullet Some legislators believe that they should strictly mirror the beliefs and wishes of their constituents. So, for example, if a vote is to be cast on a bill with a moral/ethical component, they would determine the will of the majority of their constituents, and vote accordingly -- irrespective of their personal beliefs.
bullet Some feel that their prime mandate is to be re-elected at the next election. They might weigh the will of the citizens that they represent, against the likely future repercussions of a yea or nay vote. For example, a vote to extend hate crimes legislation or discrimination in workplace hiring to include protection on the basis of sexual orientation would probably be favored by most voters. They would be motivated by a sense of fairness, and by an awareness of the widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians. But groups that oppose bills granting equality to gays and elsbians be very highly organized; they might persuade a solid minority of the electorate to vote against the lawmaker, on the basis of a single issue. 
bullet Other lawmaker believe that their responsibility is not to follow but to lead. Their personal task is to become totally familiar with each bill, to determine carefully what is in the best interests of the constituents, and vote accordingly. They believe that their responsibility is not necessarily to follow their constituents' beliefs, but to follow what those beliefs would be if their constituents were fully aware of all aspects to the bill. One example of this happened in the Canadian parliament decades ago. About 65% of the public -- and probably of the legislators -- favored the death penalty. However, many of those parliamentary representatives who studied the matter thoroughly changed their mind and voted to abandon executions. Canada has been without a death penalty ever since.
bullet Some heavily weigh the human rights implications of a bill. For example, a legislator might represent a constituency which is 90% Christian, of whom a strong majority might support state-initiated prayer in the public school system. But they believe that school prayer would discriminate against, and generate increased intolerance of, religious minorities. A legislator might buck a majority feeling among his constituents in order to protect the religious freedom of a minority.
bullet Some legislators weigh the constitutional implications of a bill. If the proposed law would obviously be unable to survive a court challenge, they will vote against the bill on a matter of principle. This follows logically from their oath of office which includes a commitment to support the constitution. A growing number of lawmakers seem to take the opposite position. They ignore the constitution, violate their oath of office, and vote in favor of a clearly indefensible law because of its popularity. State laws opposing access to abortion, mandating religious prayer in public schools, and requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in state offices and schools are typical examples in which lawmakers passed obviously unconstitutional bills. 
bullet Some follow the instructions of their personal faith group. Most recently, the Roman Catholic church appears to be most publicly vocal in pressuring Catholic law makers to follow church teachings:
bullet Vermont: The state Supreme Court instructed the legislature to either widen the definition of marriage to include gays and lesbians, or create a parallel system for homosexuals that would grant gay and lesbian couples equal benefits, obligations and rights to married couples. After holding extensive hearings on the topic, a house committee drafted a bill to create civil unions for gays and lesbians in Vermont. The Roman Catholic archdiocese took a very active part in the committee hearings.  Most Reverend Kenneth A. Angell, Bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, opposed the creation of domestic partnership legislation because he believed it to be "only a political stepping stone toward the legalization of Same-Sex Marriage." He called for a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between one man and one woman. The bishop later organized a rally of Roman Catholic and conservative Protestant clergy against the bill. Finally, the archdiocese organized a petition for a constitutional amendment that would "state that marriage in Vermont is exclusively reserved for unions between one (1) man and one (1) woman, only."

The House voted in favor of the civil union bill on 2000-MAR-17. The archdiocese issued a statement critical of the Roman Catholic members of the house who voted for the bill. They asserted that, being Roman Catholics, the legislators should have dutifully voted to support the church's position on the bill.
bullet Europe: According to the Conservative News Service (CNSNews):
bullet The European Parliament approved a resolution "to make rapid progress in the area of mutual recognition of the various forms of living together legally, but not of a conjugal character, and of legal marriages between persons of the same sex."
bullet In response, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family issued a statement saying lawmakers "and especially Catholic parliamentarians, should not vote to support this type of legislation as it goes against the common good and the truth of man and, as a result, is in reality iniquitous.
bullet Roman Catholic Cardinal Thomas Winning, leader of Scotland's 700,000 Catholics, said that that country's Catholic politicians should vote with their conscience, but added that "conscience is something that must take into account the teachings of the church." Ronnie Convery, spokesman for Cardinal Thomas Winning said on MAR-22 that "Sometimes you find yourself having to choose between the church's teaching and a particular policy of a particular political party.
bullet Kate MacLean, Labor member and head of the parliament's Equal Opportunities Committee, said lawmakers were "elected to represent everybody in their constituencies and I do not think any other organization, whether a church or other body, has any right to interfere with that."

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  1. "Dilemma for Scottish Lawmakers: Obey church or party?" Conservative News Service, 2000-MAR-23. Online at: 

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Copyright 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-28
Latest update: 2008-JAN-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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