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March 6, 2012

Playing Left Field: Some blur lines between laws of church and state

We have freedom of religion in this country. A clear separation between churches and governmental agencies is constitutionally mandated. Government power may not favor or advance a particular religion.

But that separation is getting to be a one-way street. Some religious conservatives want to legislate their morality onto the rest of us. Distorting the roles of religious leader and employer, some seek to insulate church-sponsored institutions serving the secular world from obeying the public health policies of that world.

To wit: health policy requiring contraception coverage for all is called by the pope a "radical secularism," which trespasses on religious freedom by forcing collaboration in an "intrinsically evil" practice.

If you are a Catholic, that would supposedly mean limiting your birth control efforts to the rhythm method. But Andrew Sullivan, in the Feb. 20 edition of Newsweek magazine, wrote that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women accept and have used other birth control -- an intrinsically pragmatic practice.

This may upset Catholic bishops, but it does not stop them from claiming the right to opt out of health insurance laws that affect us all.

To me, it is wrong for churches to arrogate their particular constraints into rules imposed onto secular people in their employ. They argue as an employer against paying for health insurance covering contraception.

Paying for a legitimate employee benefit does not force them to violate their own values. They are not entitled to impose those private values on others who just happen to work for them. When you disapprove of some behavior, then just don't do it.

In a Feb. 17 column, Pat Buchanan called opposition to such an exemption, a war against traditional Christianity. He said church-operated social agencies or health providers should never be required to pay for health insurance covering contraceptive agents. President Barack Obama's order that they must pay makes the President an "arrogant" intruder "on God's turf ... (and he) ought to be forced into a public retreat."

Forced is the operant word; who is forcing whom? Buchanan insisted, "Should Obama's order stand, the Church will be forced by the state to adopt practices that it has always taught are immoral and to engage in acts it believes are intrinsically evil."

Buchanan, like Santorum, arrogantly asserts that unlocking a door (to contraception, for example, or to prenatal testing) would force (or enable?) everyone to pass through it. Choice is not compulsion.

I cannot understand why some religious people are not satisfied to stand firmly on their own principles, as if that cannot be done without everyone else being required to observe them.

The Jehovah's Witnesses do not lobby to make blood transfusions illegal. They have the strength to follow their private consciences on this matter. Abortion should be similarly a matter of private conscience.

Now, that gets us into the semantics of good and evil, where (as above) definitions are used to beg the question. First they insist on an unprovable assumption _ such as that life begins at the moment of conception _ then it is "murder" that they're opposing. A gray issue becomes absolute, rather than something more properly left to the moral discretion of individuals.

How well I recall John Kennedy's being at pain to establish that as a Catholic president, his fealty would be completely to the Constitution, not the pope.

Rick Santorum seems unable to disentangle his religion from his political issues. He calls the president's environmental policy "a phony theology," just as he calls the Rev. Jeremiah Wright a phony preacher. To Santorum, differences are between "reasonable conservatives" and "radical, sometimes-devious Democrats."

Santorum said the president's theology is not based on the Bible. In my opinion, Santorum's willingness to pass judgment aligns him with those who sponsored the crucifixion itself, for that was on religious issues as well.

I suspect he would have put Galileo into prison for defining a heliocentric solar system. That was the mentality of the Inquisition, which "saved souls" by burning those in error at the stake. Santorum even criticizes public schooling as not useful, and disparages the science of climate change as only political.

What does it mean to be religious? It means to think beyond yourself, to see the whole world and your fellow humans through open eyes and generosity, as would become God.

If you are small-minded, you seek to speak for God, seeing only what you are willing to see. The forbidden fruit in Genesis is not just knowledge, but claiming knowledge of good and evil. That is playing God, and that has always been a life and death evil throughout history.

William Masters can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.

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