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GOP rivals condemn Trump support for Muslim registry

Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally in South Carolina.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally in South Carolina.Rainier Ehrhardt/REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Jeb Bush on Friday denounced Donald Trump for saying he was willing to shutter mosques and require Muslims to register with the government, as several GOP rivals slammed Trump for increasingly harsh American political rhetoric after the terror attacks in Paris.

"You talk about internment, you talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people. That's just wrong," Bush said Friday morning on CNBC. "It's not a question of toughness. It's manipulating people's angst and their fears. That's not strength, that's weakness."

"In fact, I find it abhorrent that Donald Trump is suggesting we register people," he added.

Legal scholars and critics of Trump pointed out that requiring citizens of a particular faith to register with the government would undoubtedly violate basic tenets of the US Constitution.

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Under such withering fire, Trump Friday seemed to backpedal from his earlier statements, which had emerged Thursday under questioning from reporters.

"I didn't suggest a database — a reporter did," Trump said Friday on his Twitter account. "We must defeat Islamic terrorism & have surveillance, including a watch list, to protect America."

Trump's comments this week follow his earlier remarks calling for a mass deportation of Mexican immigrants, recalling a similar Eisenhower-era policy. But the latest backlash is part of a debate within the Republican Party over how to respond to the Paris attacks. Some worry that the party's top-tier presidential aspirants are crossing a line with language and crackdown proposals targeting Muslims and Syrian refugees.

Planned by the terror group Islamic State, which is based in Syria and Iraq, the shocking attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people Nov. 13 have produced a sharp response in the United States. The US House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday — with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans — to tighten security measures for Syrian refugees coming to the US.

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The presidential candidates have swiftly called for even tougher measures targeting Muslims, in a wave of strong rhetoric that Democrats are calling irresponsible.

Senator Ted Cruz said he would allow Christian refugees to enter the United States but not Muslims. Jeb Bush has said Christian refugees should receive preference. Ben Carson compared admitting Syrian refugees to having "a rabid dog running around your neighborhood."

"Doesn't mean that you hate all dogs, by any stretch of the imagination," Carson said. "But you're putting your intellect into motion, and you're thinking how do I protect my children."

Despite his ``dogs'' comment, Carson stopped short of joining Trump's call for a Muslim registry.

"One of the hallmarks of America is that we treat everybody the same," he told reporters in New Hampshire. "So if we are just going to pick out a particular group of people based on their religion, based on their race, based on some other thing – that's a pretty dangerous precedent."

The comments by some of today's Republican Oval Office aspirants is a departure from the tone set by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush repeatedly made clear that America was at war with terrorists and despots, not with Islam, a religion he called peaceful.

Trump is suggesting that America must go further to combat terror.

"We're going to have to do things that we never did before," he told Yahoo News in a Tuesday interview, without getting into specifics. "And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule." In a Fox News interview Tuesday, he said the United States must consider shutting down mosques.

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On Thursday night in Iowa, an NBC News reporter asked whether there should be a database system to track Muslims in the United States and Trump said he "would certainly implement that."

"There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases," he said. "It would be just good management."

He said they could be registered at mosques, among other places. He did not answer several follow-up questions from NBC News, including whether there would be consequences for those who did not register. Trump was asked several times whether there was any difference between what he was proposing and requiring Jews to register in Nazi Germany.

"You tell me," Trump said. "You tell me."

Trump's campaign did not respond to several additional questions from the Globe, including which government agency would build and maintain the database and how the government would define a Muslim for purposes of a registry.

"I'm a big fan of Donald Trump's but I'm not a fan of government registries of American citizens," Cruz told reporters Friday in Iowa. "The First Amendment protects religious liberty and I've spent the past several decades defending the religious liberty of every American."

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, too, criticized Trump's proposal.

"The indiscriminate closing of mosques or the establishment of a national registry based on religion will do nothing to keep us safer and shows a lack of understanding on how to effectively prevent terrorist attacks," he said in a statement.

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The US Census Bureau collects a trove of racial and other demographic data every 10 years, but the law requires the information to be protected so that it's not identified with an individual name or address. For about a century the census did collect information on religious affiliation, but that practice stopped in the 1950s over concerns with religious liberty and privacy.

Forcing Muslims to register with the government would violate both the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion and speech, and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, legal scholars said.

"It is clear that imposing a registration burden that specifically singles out members of a racially, ethnically, nationally or religiously defined minority would not be permissible unless the government could make the case that it was absolutely necessary for national security," said Laurence Tribe, a Harvard constitutional law professor. "That's a very hard case to make."

The most notable precedent would be during World War II when the government forced thousands of Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship, to register and relocate to detention camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Supreme Court in 1944 ruled that the need to protect against espionage outweighed individual rights, a controversial decision that a dissenting opinion called the "legalization of racism." The Justice Department in 2011 conceded the ruling was a mistake, though it has not explicitly been overturned.

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During the Cold War, Communist organizations and their individual members were required to register with the government. They were subjected to federal investigation for subversive activity and some subsequently lost their passports and their citizenship for a number of years. The Supreme Court in 1965 struck down the registration requirement on the grounds that it violated the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination.

Mark Tushnet, a Harvard constitutional law scholar, said it would be permissible for the government to compile a database of citizens using existing public information, and to consult the database in the event of a terror attack.

"But to require every Muslim to show up at City Hall and register would be pretty clearly unconstitutional," Tushnet said.


Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.