Tampering with the vote in the name of religion

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Most arguments over religious intrusion into public life-prayer in schools, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Christian symbols in public spaces such as a crèche at Christmas time or the Ten Commandments at a court building-are usually brought by atheists and civil libertarians.

I am neither. Raised Catholic in a family that included Protestants and agnostics, I attended parochial, public and secular private schools, developing a tolerance for many viewpoints and, until recently, I saw no reason to exclude any of them from our public institutions.

Now, I’m not so sure.

I was outraged last week when a Roman Catholic bishop in Colorado declared the church has the right to deny the sacraments to anyone who supports abortion rights, stem cell research or same-sex marriage. Though some bishops have said that politicians who support abortion rights might be denied communion in their diocese, Bishop Michael Sheridan extended that to any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or any form of euthanasia. And to think, I was once so concerned about keeping government out of bedrooms, I never dreamed we would have to keep religion out of the voting booth.

But the climate has changed radically since the days when female parishioners were told contraception was a mortal sin and abortion was murder and there was no such thing as unintended pregnancy. Pregnancy, according to some clerics, was God’s punishment for sex outside of marriage. Sexually transmitted diseases were the scourge of prostitutes, abusive relationships were provoked by disobedient wives, and rape was caused by flirtation and suggestive clothing.

It was during these times I defected and began a comparative study of other religions, also considered sinful as the church banned books and attendance at any other church even for weddings and funerals. I actually thought the ecumenical movement would solve these unchristian-like proscriptions, and it did for some. But now we have church leaders furthering their repressive agendas by intimidating parishioners from voting at all, much less campaigning for a candidate who opposes the overturning of Roe vs. Wade or, perish the thought, preemptive wars. Who decides which killing is more sinful: withdrawing a feeding tube from a brain dead patient, using a few frozen embryonic stem cells for research to cure crippling diseases, or bombing, shooting and torturing people whose hearts and minds you may never win?

How insidious is the incursion of religious tenets into government and the agencies created to protect human health and welfare? Let’s start with the FDA. Its recent ruling not to approve the emergency contraceptive Plan B for over-the-counter sale smacks of the religious right theory that making contraception (and even sex education) more easily available promotes promiscuity. Actually, what that promotes is unwanted babies and abortion, by whatever means may still be available.

There are several groups of women who will be harmed by this, none of whom are middle class or wealthy voters, who generally have easy access to their personal physicians. For them, the doctor would call in a prescription to the pharmacy of their choice, a nonlocal one if that was indicated by an abusive husband, a tyrannical parent or a druggist allowed by law not to fill a prescription on conscience.

But a teen-aged victim of date rape, a woman in a rural area with only one possible place to fill a prescription, an HMO patient whose doctors are unavailable on weekends or a poor woman who relies on Medicaid or government-run clinics would be out of luck because the Plan B must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse and is most effective taken sooner. How would this lower the abortion rate? How would this protect women in any way? It won’t. This is not an issue of women’s safety. This is about power and intimidation at every level. This is about religious values being enforced by government. There can be no separation of church and state in this climate of fear. All that’s missing is for the government to name a Christian denomination as the nation’s official religion. And as yet the Constitution prohibits that.

It seems we are on a collision course with history, regressing to the time when thousands of women died every year of botched illegal abortions. Or further back to the centuries of religious wars. Those who disagreed with church policies were imprisoned or censured. We have taken the moral high ground with respect to other cultures where women are still ostracized and suffer abuse for bringing perceived disgrace to their families by being raped. And yet we may be teetering on the edge. Repression and fear are not the hallmarks of a democracy.

If these trends coerce us to approach the ballot box with trepidation, we ought to be outraged.