Originally posted on AZCentral.com:
Religion could be an important factor in the race for U.S. House in the East Valley, if voters’ questions at a candidate forum this week are any indication.
The 5th District, where four Republicans are competing to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., is deeply religious and conservative. It includes parts of Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek.
According to two polls of likely GOP primary voters:
- 53 percent attend religious services at least once a week.
- 65 percent are Catholic, Protestant or evangelical Christian.
- 20 percent belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Faith as a guide
Given those figures, it’s not surprising that one attendee at a Thursday event in Gilbert asked the candidates, “How is your faith going to guide you?”
“My faith is critical to me and a big part of who I am,” replied state Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, who is Mormon. “If there is anything that I think is the wrong policy, and somebody is encouraging me to support the wrong policy for wrong reasons, then I will stand up to that pressure.”
He noted his role leading the fight to defund Planned Parenthood during his five years at the state Legislature.
Technology executive Christine Jones, an evangelical Christian, said learning as a child about “the love of Jesus Christ, the unconditional presence of the creator of the universe … shaped every decision, every moment for the rest of my days.”
She said she refused to engage in attacks during her unsuccessful 2014 bid for governor and would continue that approach in the race for Congress.
“I will work harder than anybody else, but I will not compromise my integrity. And if I have to lose that’s what I’ll do,” she said. “That’s my solemn vow to you.”
Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs and former Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, who are Mormon, did not attend the forum.
Religious liberty in danger
Jones told the audience that policies related to transgender individuals pose a threat to religious liberty.
The Obama administration directed public schools earlier this year to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Arizonahas sued to block the policy.
“When mothers with agendas are using their 5-year-olds as pawns and a ploy, you have to stand up for this, or else your religious freedom is gone like that. With a pen and a phone, it will be gone,” Jones said. “In this country nobody should be required to provide professional services, education services, wedding-cake services or any other kind of services that would violate their deeply held religious beliefs or their conscience.”
Olson said laws need to be strengthened to allow people to petition courts for relief from government regulations based on deeply held beliefs.
“I do think that religious liberties are in danger,” he said. “The hate-speech laws have been used to restrict freedom of religion.”
What candidates agree on
Olson and Jones had similar opinions on:
- Their support for Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.
- Tightening border security.
- Cutting taxes.
- Improving veteran health care.
- Balancing the budget by shrinking spending.
How candidates differ
They also drew distinctions between themselves and the other candidates in the race.
Jones said she doesn’t have family going back generations in the Valley like Olson. She lived around the world while her husband served in the military, and she currently lives outside the district. But she offers a fresh perspective, Jones said.
“We have to stop sending the same people back to Washington and start to send the outsiders who think like business people,” she said. “You have me and three politicians. If you want the same old stuff, send one of them. If you want something new, I’m your guy.”
Olson said he can better identify with voters because he works full-time as a tax analyst to support his family, while other candidates are wealthy.
“I’m the only non-millionaire in this race. It’s actually quite remarkable,” he said. “I’m a regular person, and that’s why I’m the best candidate to represent you. I’m one of you.”
Democrats running for the seat are Talia Fuentes and Kinsey Remaklus.