Putting The Bishops In Check

Religious Lobbies And The Limits Of Persuasion

Bart Stupak (U.S. Rep. of Michigan) is nothing if not candid.

Following House debate on the health-care reform bill, which now includes an amendment he proposed to dramatically curtail women’s access to abortion, Stupak made a startling concession to the Associated Press. He explained that he had gotten representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to push his amendment.

“The Catholic Church used their power – their clout, if you will – to influence this issue,” Stupak said. “They had to. It’s a basic teaching of the religion.”

Of course, the bishops had a little help from their friends, including Stupak.

I’m sure that many of the Republicans and Democrats who supported this erosion of constitutional rights for women would echo Stupak’s sentiments. However, to do so is to run afoul of a core principle of America that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Let me state it plainly: It is not the job of Congress, or any other governmental entity, to enforce religious teachings. In shorthand, this is the separation of church and state.

What religious groups do when they “teach” is try to use the power of moral suasion to change hearts and minds. When that fails, they are not supposed to run to government to impose those teachings on the unwilling, particularly if doing so tramples on the constitutional rights of others.

Polls of Roman Catholic voters demonstrate the church’s lack of success with persuasion. Most American Catholics don’t support the position taken by the church hierarchy and its army of lobbyists. A recent poll take by Catholics for Choice shows that 68 percent of Catholics say the church would be wrong to oppose the entire health-care reform plan merely because it includes coverage for abortion. In fact, a majority of Catholics support coverage for abortion, especially in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality.

In my regular “blogalogue” on beliefnet.com with Religious Right attorney Jay Sekulow, he asked me if I would be so upset with the bishops if they had lobbied to keep abortion coverage in the bill. Hello?! When any group is an advocate for preserving rights in the Constitution, it is hardly the same thing as erasing such protections.

I’ve been doing many interviews about all of this lately, with NPR, the National Journal and even Fox News. There is one distinction that needs to be made: Sometimes even if conduct violates any sensible gut reaction to what “the separation of church and state” means, there is not necessarily a law that prohibits it.

Does the bishops’ conference have the right to try to influence legislation? Under one section of the tax laws, they have more or less the same right any non-profit does to undertake such efforts and simply can’t use a “substantial” part of their income on influencing policy. (“Substantial” is not defined, but it is unlikely courts would consider the current efforts to be in that category.)

A different section of the tax law, however, makes the bishops’ expenditures hidden from any public scrutiny. They are exempt from reporting laws that secular groups must meet.

Want to know how Americans United spends money? You can review our Form 990. Church entities don’t have to file those. In addition, there is a separate federal “lobbying disclosure” law. You can review our lobbying records by looking at our filings with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate. Not so with the bishops.

It may be time to reconsider some of these religious exemptions. At a press conference at the National Press Club a few days after the health-care vote, I joined a number of religious and constitutional rights groups to sort through some of these issues.

Speaking for myself, at least, I noted: “At a minimum, the church should register as a federal lobbyist and disclose the costs of this attack on women’s constitutional rights” because that would be “consistent with an ethos of transparency.”

Whatever happens to these exemptions – and I concede any change is a long shot – we cannot let Congress off the hook. They should not be voting for measures merely, or largely, at the behest of a religious group or writing theological judgments into federal statutes.

As President John F. Kennedy noted in a famous speech in l960, public officials should not “either ask for or accept instructions on public policy” from religious figures or bodies. Kennedy listened to moral voices within and outside the religious community, of course, but he wanted to see an America where religious bodies didn’t “impose their will…upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials….”

My remedy for Congress is to think more like Kennedy and less like Stupak.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.