By encouraging Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) to refrain from taking Communion, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, has placed himself at a unique position in the current debate on the separation between church and state. After publicly criticizing the Catholic Church for threatening to oppose the current health care proposal unless it expressly prohibited government-funded abortions, Kennedy apparently received a letter from the bishop asking the representative to abstain from taking Communion. Although ostensibly a private matter between a man and his religious institution, by involving themselves in the structure and development of public policy, the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States has encouraged criticism of their policies and a reevaluation of their current tax-exempt status.

First of all, let's acknowledge the fact that abortion has been legal in the United States since 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Roe v. Wade. Agree or disagree, it is fundamentally indisputable that women have the right to choose whether or not to abort a fetus, up until it is viable outside the womb, which according the majority opinion, may occur as early as twenty-four weeks. In the case that the safety of the mother is at risk, abortion must be allowed at any point during the pregnancy.

It is impossible to ignore the controversial relationship between Rep. Kennedy and Bishop Tobin when discussing the larger role of the Catholic Church in American politics, as it is emblematic of the challenges of incorporating personal religious beliefs into secular public policy. Now, I'm perfectly aware that this is oxymoronic, illogical, and possibly unconstitutional: how can a religious organization play a role in the democratic legislative process of the United States? By any reasonable assessment it shouldn't, particularly when considering the impact of the Catholic Church's most recent bout of lobbying.

Just as a single-payer system is no longer an option under the current health care proposal, abortion will not be covered for those who purchase health insurance with government tax credits. This encourages the propagation of wealth disparity; it is unlikely that women of means will avoid procuring an abortion because their insurance does not cover it, while poor women—even those whose lives are risked by pregnancy—will be unable to receive what amounts to life-threatening medical attention. This development can be traced directly to grassroots mobilization of Catholic churches across the country, as well as lobbying on the part of institutional leadership; the Church makes no secret of its opposition to abortion rights and is staunchly anti-choice.

It is not unreasonable to reevaluate the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church in the United States in light of these facts. Under Internal Revenue Service law, it is illegal for tax-exempt organizations—including churches and non-profits—to campaign on behalf of or against a candidate. This is undoubtedly a measure aimed at preserving the separation between church and state, not one designed to limit the non-civic actions of the Church.

Drastic measures must be taken to allow for the passage of the appropriate legislation in the current political climate. Debate should be centered on the benefits and challenges of providing affordable health care in this country, not on the prospect of abortion rights when they are already guaranteed under Roe v. Wade. The Catholic Church ought to face serious consequences for intervening in public policy when the precedent of the separation between church and state has been expressly established.

Because of this standard, repercussions aside from a revocation of tax-exempt status must be instituted, because this action achieves the opposite effect and essentially allows for religious intervention in public policy, a development that is antithetical to Constitutional philosophy. It is time for a reiteration of American political values, one in which theology plays no direct role in the development of legislation.

It is extremely difficult to separate personal belief from the processes of policy; certainly, it plays an important role in the development of political ideology. However, institutions of religion have no business involving themselves in the machinations of deliberation and voting in a secular democracy.

It has been argued that the framers of the Constitution were all themselves Christian thinkers and that much of the philosophy enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights finds its roots in Biblical study. On the other hand, they realized the dangers of a close relationship between secular and religious realms, and that ultimately true democracies cannot be beholden to the whims and theology of religious institutions. This is particularly true when considering the scope of diversity in this country.

Caitlin Hurwit is a member of the Class of 2012.