- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

The House yesterday overwhelmingly came out against efforts by international family planning groups to reduce Vatican influence at the United Nations.

The vote was 416-1, with only Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat and an avid supporter of abortion rights who takes a tough line on separation of church and state, voting against the non-binding resolution.

Supporters of the measure said Congress will not stand idly by while the hundreds of organizations assail the Vatican.

"The Vatican is under attack by pro-abortion extremists, and Congress will not let that attack go unchallenged … we will not tolerate this effort to silence the Vatican," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said after the vote.

"If anything," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and sponsor of the resolution, "the Holy See deserves a more prominent role at the U.N."

For three decades, the Vatican has enjoyed "observer" status at the United Nations, meaning it doesn't have a full vote like most nations, but it can participate in debates and conferences and can join international treaties. Only neutral Switzerland has similar status.

The Vatican is the central governing body of the Catholic Church, but unlike other religious institutions, it is also an internationally recognized sovereign nation. The Vatican has diplomatic relations with 169 nations, including the United States.

A coalition of 70 organizations, led by Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, began a drive early last year to reduce the influence of the Vatican in the United Nations, taking away its ability to participate in most official functions. At least 300 more organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Republicans for Choice, have since signed the anti-Vatican petition.

"The question of the appropriate role for the Roman Catholic Church in the U.N., whether it is called the Holy See or the Vatican, is a legitimate question of the separation of church and state that deserves serious consideration by both the United Nations and the U.S. Congress," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, in a statement released after the vote.

"Non-binding jingoistic apple pie resolutions that mistake questions of law and policy will not make the real issues go away."

Catholics for a Free Choice and its allies object particularly to the strict Catholic position against birth control and abortion. Ms. Kissling has repeatedly dismissed the Vatican as nothing more that "100 acres of office space and tourist attractions" and not a legitimate nation state.

Mr. Smith warned that relations between the United States and the United Nations will become more strained "if this anti-Catholicism succeeds."

The House resolution is non-binding, but it is an important political signal from both parties to Catholic voters. Catholics are an important voting bloc in key states, including Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

During the primary season, candidates of both parties courted Catholics. The battle became particularly heated on the Republican side, where Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, accused Texas Gov. George W. Bush of being anti-Catholic for having given a speech at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The Protestant institution is sharply critical of the Catholic Church.

So sensitive to the criticism was Mr. Bush, now the likely Republican nominee, that he is considering prominent Catholics to be his running mate, including Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma and Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.

The issue may also come into play in New York, where first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for Senate. Many of her prominent female supporters sit on boards of organizations asking to reduce the Vatican's influence. Mrs. Clinton has declined to denounce those efforts, a fact that the Republican National Committee occasionally points out in critical press releases.

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