The down-ballot issues people of faith are watching

A police officer stands watch on Dec. 4, 2015, as people leave Friday prayers at the Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah-Amer mosque in San Bernardino, Calif., where shooting suspect Syed Rizwan Farook was seen two to three times a week at lunchtime. (Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mike Blake)

The nation’s attention may be on the presidential election, but there are a number of down-ballot issues of interest to religious and nonreligious voters. Here’s a sampling of what’s being considered and how people of faith are weighing them:

Marijuana

Recreational: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada

Medicinal: Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota

More states than ever will be mulling whether marijuana should be legalized, and many religious leaders have spoken out against it. More than 125 Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders in Massachusetts signed a statement urging defeat of Question 4 in that state.

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"As faith leaders, we believe that our efforts as a society should be focused toward improving life for our citizens," they said. "A culture that encourages and promotes the use of drugs is failing its people."

The Archdiocese of Boston donated $850,000 to oppose Question 4, and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, contributed another $150,000. Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, has created a guide on "The Allure of Legalizing Marijuana" that its supporters — and marijuana opponents — can use to advocate against passage of the initiatives.

But a group of clergy in Arizona has argued that the state’s marijuana laws, which prohibit the possession and sale of marijuana, are unjust. "Taxpayers spend millions of dollars annually to arrest, prosecute, cite and process thousands of people — disproportionately Latinos and African-Americans — for possessing small amounts of marijuana," a letter to Arizona clergy states.

Gun control and ammunition initiatives

California, Maine, Nevada, Washington

The Golden State is still reeling after last year's terror attack in San Bernardino, in which a heavily armed couple killed 14 and wounded 22 more. Polls now show two-thirds of Californians support the state’s Proposition 63, which would require background checks for the purchase of ammunition and would ban possession of ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds.

Supporting the ban are a slew of religious organizations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and a number of parachurch groups, such as Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

Pushing for a "no" vote is a Southern California-based group called Jews Can Shoot that frames its opposition in terms of preventing another Holocaust.

Minimum wage

Washington, Arizona, Maine, Colorado

A higher minimum wage — a "living wage" in some parlance — is on the to-do list of many religious groups, some of which frame it as an economic justice issue, a kind of "What would Jesus pay?" Initiatives across four states would raise the wage to between $12 and $13.50 over four years.

Maine’s religious communities have rallied behind their state’s Question 4, which would take the minimum wage to $12 by 2020, with endorsements from the Maine Council of Churches, which represents nine Christian denominations.

"For me, the minimum wage is an issue of faith," Stephen T. Lane, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, wrote in the Portland Press Herald. "Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that requires us to work for all of our fellow citizens."

Repealing the death penalty

California, Nebraska, Oklahoma

Repealing — or maintaining a repeal of — the death penalty seems to have the most support of any ballot initiatives across the states. In California, almost 30 different religious groups support a death penalty repeal, while in Nebraska, celebrity Christian author Shane Claiborne has spoken in support of retaining a repeal of the death penalty at anti-death penalty events.

In Oklahoma, clergy want to see a "no" vote on Question 776, which would reverse the state's current death penalty repeal, put in place after several botched executions.

"The death penalty is state-sponsored murder and it's disgusting, and we're telling the rest of the world that not only are we OK with it, but we're making it a fundamental value and putting it in our constitution," said the Rev. Adam Leathers, a spokesperson for Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "This (measure) will truly make us look ignorant, brutish and all manner of negative attributes."

Public money for religious purposes

Oklahoma

This ballot measure, fueled by the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the state Capitol grounds, has divided religious leaders. Question 790 would repeal a section of the Oklahoma Constitution that prohibits religious organizations from using state money. In a statement supporting that repeal, Catholic Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City said approval of the measure would remove the "Blaine Amendment," which aimed to exclude Catholics from public life in general and religious education in particular.

"If State Question 790 passes, Oklahomans would remove a current major threat to religious organizations — including Catholic social service agencies — who serve the poor, refugees, the disabled, the homeless, the hungry and many other needy people in our state," said Coakley.*

But Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, criticized the measure as a "move toward blending the institutions of church and state."

Assisted suicide or 'death with dignity'

Colorado

Assisted suicide is a big issue for some religious Americans who oppose it vehemently. Nowhere is this more true than in Colorado, home to a large number of conservative Christians. The state is considering Proposition 106, which would allow terminally ill patients with under six months to live to self-administer aid-in-dying drugs.

But the measure may succeed this time — supporters of the proposition have out-raised opponents by 2-to-1. The chief opponent of the proposition is the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, which has contributed $1.6 million to defeat it. Joining the opposition are Focus on the Family, Colorado Christian University and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The moral aspects of this debate are very clear," Catholic Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said in a video condemning assisted suicide. "God has taught us not to kill and that includes killing ourselves."

*Correction: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which was mentioned in an earlier version of this story, is not advocating for passage or defeat of the Oklahoma legislation.


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