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Religion, politics, and privacy.

In a recent episode of the NBC drama series The West Wing, characters portrayed by Martin Sheen and Alan Alda are sitting in the White House kitchen eating ice cream together. "What ever happened to the separation of church and state?" Alda asks Sheen. "It's still there," Sheen responds. "It's the separation of church and politics that is the problem."

I couldn't agree more.

Consider the marriage rights of Terri and Michael Schiavo. Fifteen years ago Terri slipped into a persistent vegetative state after a heart attack cut off the oxygen to her brain. In what is probably the most difficult decision a spouse could ever have to make, Michael spent 15 years attempting to exercise his legal right to remove his wife from life support. It's what she asked him to do in this situation, he says.

The right to make medical decisions for a spouse is one of the many rights gay and lesbian couples have been fighting for in their long pursuit of marriage equality. It's among the many rights of marriage that conservative religious groups claim need to be protected-rights, they argue, that are inviolable yet fragile and easily damaged by the influence of society.

So why is it that these same conservative groups and lawmakers feel that in the case of Terri Schiavo they can redefine the very marriage rights they are protecting? They seem happy to "protect" the rights of only those people whose definition of those rights matches their own. It's religion meddling not just in politics but in our private lives.

It also brings to mind the case of John McCusker Jr., a gay businessman and community activist in San Diego who recently died of a heart attack while skiing. McCusker, 31, had made it clear that when he died he wanted a Catholic funeral on the campus of his alma mater, the University of San Diego. But John Brom, the Roman Catholic bishop in San Diego, denied McCusker's family the right to a funeral in any of the 98 Catholic churches or chapels in the diocese.

Bishop Brom labeled McCusker a "manifest sinner" because he owned two bars that catered to gay clientele. The bishop also had heard that a gay pore video had been filmed in one of the clubs. Under Catholic doctrine, the concept of "manifest sinner" is meant to be applied to someone whose sinful life is blatant, visible, and public knowledge--a serial killer, a mob boss, a pedophile priest. In cases where a late parishioner's sin is publicly manifest, a funeral rite, which honors the dead and consoles the family, would be considered scandalous to the faithful and should be avoided.

Certainly, owning a business establishment that caters to any one group of people is in no way a sin. A few days later Bishop Brom apologized for the "anguish" his decision had caused. But the damage had already been done, as the funeral had to be held in a local Episcopal church.

So how is this related to Schiavo? The entities that were there to protect each of these people in their time of need--for Schiavo, the government; for McCusker, the church--failed then, in the name of religions dogma. McCusker's family accepted the bishop's apology, but they will hurt for some time.

We as a community have to accept the fact that even though we enjoy constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, nevertheless church, religion, and spirituality will continue to play a part in the political landscape of our country. The passion of those who oppose our equality comes from the very same place as the passion and dedication we experience in our pursuit of it. It's a love for what matters.

We need to embrace and bring to the table those GLBT leaders in communities of faith to fight "Bible verse with Bible verse" with our opponents--it is in that type of deep, committed, and passionate exchange that we will come to a place of love and acceptance of one another. After all, that is what we are looking for, isn't it?

Seneco is an archbishop and president of the National Conference of Independent Catholic Bishops and is associate rector of the Cathedral of Saint John the Beloved in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:last word; Separation of church and state (private life)
Author:Seneco, Michael
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 26, 2005
Words:708
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