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June 11, 2012

Those evolving wars over religious liberty

The ratification of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcoholic beverages had obvious implications for Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis, as well as for tavern owners.

Thus, legislators wrote an exemption into the bill that defined the Prohibition era allowing the sacramental or medicinal use of alcoholic beverages. The wine on Catholic altars and Jewish Seder tables remained real -- thanks to the Volstead Act's fine print.

"If the act had failed to exempt wine for sacramental purposes there would have been both a political firestorm and a First Amendment challenge," noted William Galston of the Brookings Institution at a recent religious-liberty conference in Washington, D.C.

This is not dusty history, in a year loaded with tense clashes between religious groups and the government. Thus, Galston said it's important for politicians and clergy to remember 1919 and to ask, "Would that challenge have succeeded? This is not a peripheral issue. The use of sacramental wine lies at the heart of more than one religion."

Truth is, the timeline of American history is dotted with similar conflicts. While the First Amendment offers strong protections, politicians and judges have frequently tweaked the boundaries on the religious-liberty map.

Several church-state fires are currently burning, including intense debates linked to health care as well as to same-sex marriage.

Many speakers during the conference, which was sponsored by the American Religious Freedom Program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, focused on conservative concerns about the impact of new Health and Human Services regulations. The key is that these mandates require the health-insurance plans offered by most religious institutions to cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills" -- even when this violates ancient doctrines.

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