Consider this scenario. After months of debate, the national legislature is set to cast a historic vote. But, before legislators can vote yea or nay, the bill must first be sent to the country's Supreme Religious Council for its approval. Only after unelected clerics give their blessing are elected politicians permitted to vote.
Did that happen in Iran? No, it happened right here, in the House of Representatives, during last week's vote on health-care reform.
A carefully crafted piece of legislation – the result of months of debate by three different House committees – was before the House for a final vote. But, at the eleventh hour, lobbyists for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops descended on the Capitol, declared they could not accept provisions in the bill restricting federal funding of abortion, demanded that the language be made tougher – and dutiful Democrats did just what the bishops ordered.
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In so doing, they might just as well have tossed the First Amendment, and its separation of church and state, right out the window.
Pro-choice organizations are furious at Democrats for approving the tightest restrictions on women's reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade, and rightfully so. As President Obama has said on numerous occasions, there was no need for any restrictive language in the health-care bill at all, since the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion, has been the law of the land since 1976.
Not only that, House Democrats had already agreed to language carefully engineered by California's Lois Capps that enabled private insurance plans, purchased by individuals with their own money, to cover an abortion procedure, but only as long as the plan kept personal funds segregated from any public funds it received for low-income patients. Catholic bishops rejected that idea of segregated funds for abortion, even though segregated funding – for books and pencils only – is the very argument they themselves have put forward as a justification for Catholic schools receiving federal education funding.
But abortion is only part of the story. Civil-liberty advocates should be equally angry over such a blatant violation of the Constitution. In effect, members of Congress gave Catholic bishops a veto over federal legislation: power that no group of religious leaders should hold over a secular, popularly elected Congress. Who elected the bishops, anyway? And whom do they represent? They certainly don't represent all Americans. And according to a recent poll conducted for Catholics for Choice, they don't even represent all Catholics – 68 percent of whom disagree with the bishops' position in opposition to all health-care reform legislation unless it contains new anti-abortion limits.
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Besides, at the risk of being accused of Catholic-bashing, why is there special treatment for Catholic bishops? Can you imagine the complaints from Democrats if religious conservatives James Dobson and Pat Robertson had been given the same access? Or the howls of outrage from conservatives if Congress first took time out to ask Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for their blessing? Not to mention the universal uproar were a group of Muslim clerics consulted before the vote. No other group of religious leaders would have been given that special access to the corridors of power. And Catholic bishops shouldn't, either.
Equally distressing for me, as a Catholic, is the fact that reproductive rights for women is the one issue on which male, celibate Catholic bishops feel compelled to get so politically involved. You would never see them storming the barricades of Congress over legislation dealing with poverty, war, torture, the death penalty, global warming or any other moral issue. It appears they only get worked up over two issues: abortion and gay marriage.
Of course, the same First Amendment that was trashed in this case also gives every American, including bishops, the right to speak out and get politically involved. But if Catholic bishops are going to demand a voice in legislation, then they must do what all other special interests in Washington do: register as lobbyists and pay their taxes. If they insist on playing politics, then we should insist on taking away the Catholic Church's tax-exempt status.
This is exactly what James Madison was trying to prevent when he wrote the First Amendment. In fact, it's a good thing bishops weren't invited into Independence Hall in 1787. They'd never have approved the Constitution, because it didn't contain the word "God."