Thursday, April 26, 2018
Opinion

John Romano: In favor of separation of church and state — but only when it suits

By the end of this column, you and I may disagree.

Nothing wrong with that. Happens all the time, I'm sure.

But to get things rolling, can we at least agree on this:

This great nation of ours has been well served for more than two centuries by the constitutional separation of church and state.

That one's a given, right? The government should not intrude on anyone's religious beliefs, and religions should not seek to interfere with the business of the government.

Which brings us to today's conflict.

When it was revealed earlier this year that the Affordable Care Act would require Catholic-related businesses to provide employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives, Bishop Robert Lynch argued publicly and passionately that it was an intrusion on church doctrines.

Now I could point out that many Catholics have been ignoring the church's stance on contraception for decades, and I could even make a case that preventive health care might be an exception worth fighting for.

But, at the end of the day, it's hard to deny that requiring the Catholic Church to provide contraception to employees is anathema to its beliefs.

So what's the problem?

Months after arguing the government had an obligation to treat the church differently on the issue of health care, Lynch is now arguing the government has an obligation not to treat the church differently when it comes to divvying up taxpayer funds.

The bishop recently produced a video shown during some local Masses and posted on the diocese's website that encourages Catholics to vote yes on Florida constitutional amendments 6 and 8.

(For those wondering how a tax-exempt church can do this, Stetson Law's professor and dean Christopher Pietruszkiewicz explains the IRS permits lobbying as long as it is not for a particular candidate and not a "substantial'' part of the organization's mission.)

Amendment 6 involves abortion and, agree or not, at least the church's stance is consistent on that issue.

Amendment 8, however, seeks to strike down a previous amendment in the state Constitution that says government revenue cannot be given to any religious group.

Notice the word "any'' in that sentence. It doesn't say Jewish. It doesn't say Catholic. It doesn't say Muslim or Baptist. It says "any church, sect, or religious denomination.''

Yet the bishop calls this a religious liberty amendment.

"We don't think it's right Catholic students shouldn't receive the same support that children in public schools receive,'' said Catholic Charities president Frank Murphy.

In the video, the bishop brings up buses and math books as harmless examples of services denied to Catholic schoolchildren by the state. That is a misleading argument.

Private schools are allowed to structure their own curriculum. That means they can disregard accepted scientific facts, or classic literature with objectionable themes. If the bishop accepts state funds, is he willing to let the government dictate classroom lessons as well?

Lynch once wrote that "the wall of separation between Church and State has been breached'' and it was "a dangerous, steep and very slippery slope.''

If the bishop believed that when writing about the Affordable Care Act, he should feel the same way about Amendment 8.

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