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Conscientious objection

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It's an interesting time to be a person of faith in the United States of America. Interesting, that is, if you're up for a fight to preserve your First Amendment constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

Over the past few decades, believers have been cowed into the corner of contemporary culture. Observant Christians in particular have been made virtual untouchables by a societal obsession with the separation of church and state. Most Americans have quietly accepted the premise that religious institutions have no right to influence civil society. It's just too dangerous for religion and politics to mix, right? People of faith must be restrained, lest they impose their moral codes on "the rest of us." The church, many suggest, has an interest in -- perhaps a plan for? -- coercing the state.

But what if the state is the unbridled force after all? What if societal coercion is aimed not only at religious institutions, but all those individuals who are affiliated with them? What if the state is intruding, attempting to exercise power over the internal affairs of the church? Given the latest assault on our freedom of conscience, these questions are sadly not at all far-fetched.

Sincere people of all faiths and none may well find this administration's latest directive and the shell game compromise that followed more than a bit disturbing. A great and broad-based coalition is likely to form in response to it. We must and should gratefully embrace the solidarity anyone may offer us. But if Catholics lose sight of what lies behind this power play, we will lose much more than religious freedom. There is, in fact, much more to lose.

The story now framed as the "White House contraception mandate versus the Catholic Church" certainly concerns the free exercise of religion. But it would be a serious mistake for us to focus on the compromise of our constitutional rights, and neglect the even deeper issues that fuel -- and motivate -- these assaults on fidelity to Christian faith. The objective of those who oppose religious institutions is not to undermine faith, but to exercise power over human life from conception to natural death. The simplest way to accomplish this is what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has called "preventive." If conception itself can be avoided, quaint consciences will have nothing to keep them up at night.

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