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November 17, 2009

The First Amendment: Again

Roy Meachum

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”


In puzzling how to grant Americans the rights, not covered in the Constitution, our Forefathers went a long way covering the gaps in drawing up the First Amendment, usually quoted by the media to protect ourselves. So frequently, that it’s hard to believe the first item addressed was religion.


We, the People, may have nothing to do with whatever creed people take unto themselves and their way of going about keeping their faith, including the hallucinating drug, peyote: legal under federal law when used in ceremonies. Thomas Jefferson called the Constitutional a “wall” that forbids politicians to tinker with religion.


The modern problem goes the other way: Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded shortly after World War II to forbid churches from interfering with government. The latest example arose in Washington last week when archdiocesan Chancellor Jane Belford wrote District of Columbia council members that if they passed a law permitting gay marriage, Catholic Charities would drop 68,000 needy it’s taking care of.


Council member Mary Cheh told The Washington Post the church was acting “childish.” Colleague David Catania said in the last three years Catholic Charities received $8.2 million; the archdiocese claims it’s kicked in $10 million of its own money. Speaking of Archbishop Donald Wuerl’s insistence the proposed law should protect the Catholic Church by providing legal exceptions, council member Philip Mendelson said:


“The problem with the individual exemption is anybody could discriminate based on their assertion of religious principle. There were many people back in the 1950s and ’60s, during the civil rights era, that said segregation of the races was ordained by God.”


An archdiocesan spokeswoman explained the church is concerned it might get into legal trouble if it refused spousal benefits to a same-sex union. Other matters on the Catholic worry list: adoption and foster services and even non-wedding use of parish halls. The same kind of concerns prompted Boston’s Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, in 2003, to issue a similar threat if Massachusetts adopted pending legislation; it didn’t work.


The state law survived a legal challenge two years ago.


From the outside looking-in, knowing the Boston situation, it looks as if his counterpart in Washington is really sailing into reality, with little wind at his back. In any event, the District Council has the same-sex proposal on its docket next month, and it will certainly pass.


Archbishop Wuerl must be up to his alb with lawyers trying to figure out his next move. Stay tuned.


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