02/09/2012 05:21 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2012

Catholics, Condoms and the Separation of Church and State

The Obama administration's recently posted rule requiring the health insurance plans of Catholic universities and charities to offer free birth control information and services to women has raised the hackles of the Catholic Church. It feels that birth control is a sin and that the Church's First Amendment rights to religious freedom are therefore being threatened. That a majority of Catholic women support the administration's rule, and that a large percentage of workers -- women and men -- in those universities and charities are not Catholic has little bearing on the matter, according to the priest/bureaucracy that runs the Church.

They will dictate to the flock, despite the fact that their dictates are not being listened to by their own people. They will also savage a government whose mandate is to govern an entire country of which the Catholics are only a distinct minority.

That Catholic bureaucracy is, of course, deep in trouble for its own mis-dealings with regard to child molestation by some of its priests, and that crime's cover-up by those higher up. As well as the until recent indifference to the issue from the throne of The Most High Up in Rome. So it seems a little disingenuous for these fellows to be moralizing about the sinfulness of what is indeed an important health issue for women worldwide. Women's rights and the alarming speed with which the world's population is growing make access to birth control a necessity, not a sin. The Church -- and its supporters in some government circles in Washington -- would have all those children be born willy nilly, yet seem to care very little about supporting them once they are born.

What the religious legislators and zealots will not do, condoms and other forms of birth control will.

It is appropriate, however, to continue the conversation about the separation of church and state, because it too is a very large issue.

The idea of the separation of church and state was made clear by President Thomas Jefferson in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists... "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

We take this to mean that religion of any sort is protected from interference by the government of the United States, a sanctified tenet of the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion and the right to exercise it.

Extending Jefferson's logic, it also holds that religions must not interfere with the running of the democratically elected state, prevented from doing so by this same wall of separation.

With the recent rise of Christian religious fundamentalism in the Republican Party, the vetting of a candidate's Christian beliefs has become a necessary requirement for being elected to office. The daily Christian prayer meetings held at the White House during George W. Bush's time in office, the pious nostrums repeatedly uttered by all of the hopefuls for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the assailing of any politician or other public figure who does not share the religious beliefs of those doing the vetting, and the ongoing debates between candidates and elected politicians as to who is the most Christian have changed the political landscape. Prior to the day that George W. Bush was elected president of the United States, such debates were generally subdued. It was expected that one could pursue his or her religious beliefs as desired, but must not impose those beliefs upon the rest of the populace. Or upon the government.

Few have had the temerity to question the new intensity of religious interference in government. Most seem afraid to do so, perhaps cowed into submission by the self-righteousness of the new Mighty Fortress of Christian fundamentalism. First Amendment doctrine clearly states that government should have no fundamental influence upon the religious activities of the people. But in the current political atmosphere, many feel that religious beliefs can be as important as any other system of ideas -- or even a determining factor -- in political decisions and government policy.

Religions should be free from government interference, and government should be left to operate without interference from religious organizations. The new fundamentalist Christian movement and its fueling of the conservative takeover of the Republican party have put the second half of that equation in grave danger.

In the meantime, as a modest proposal, I suggest that those few rank-and-file Catholics who do not agree with the Obama administration's new rule simply act from their own private consciences, and not avail themselves of this important health offering. They have a right to do so.

(Terence Clarke's collection of stories, Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell, will be published next month.)