ATLANTA – Roman Catholic bishops (search) in three Southeastern dioceses said Wednesday they will deny Communion to lawmakers who consistently support abortion rights unless the dissenting politicians publicly recant.
The bishops said in a statement that Catholics who violate church teaching in policy-making were "cooperating in evil in a public manner."
The banned Catholic lawmakers could resume taking the sacrament "only after reconciliation with the church has occurred, with the knowledge and cwed by baptism and the Catholic faith and the public expression of those values," the bishops said.
The announcement by Archbishop John Donoghue (search) of Atlanta, Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., and Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte, N.C., brings to four the number of American bishops who said they would deny the sacrament outright to defiant politicians.
Archbishop Raymond Burke (search) of St. Louis said in January he would refuse Communion to Democrat John Kerry (search), a Catholic who supports abortion rights. However, the three Southern bishops appeared to go further, by setting up strict requirements for the prohibition to be lifted.
Baker, in a separate statement to his diocesan clergy, said parish priests would not be allowed to decide whether a public figure is worthy of resuming Communion: "That determination is reserved to me personally."
About a dozen other U.S. bishops have stopped short of a ban, urging Catholic politicians who back abortion rights to voluntarily abstain from taking Communion instead. And another group of prelates has said the sacrament should not be used as a sanction.
Their statements, during a tight presidential race, have left bishops open to accusations of partisanship and sparked a national debate over religion and politics.
Kerry is the first Catholic presidential nominee on a major party ticket since John F. Kennedy ran in 1960. President Bush is a Methodist whose position on abortion is more in line with the church.
The bishops deny they are attempting to influence voters and say they are concerned only with preserving core, unequivocal church teachings on preserving life. Communion affirms a Catholic's bond with God, and asking a parishioner not to participate is a harsh punishment in the church.
Georgia state Rep. Mickey Stephens (search), a Democrat who supports abortion rights, denounced the bishops' stance.
"I don't think they banned any of those priests who committed those horrible crimes against little boys. I don't know why they're singling out politicians," said Stephens, who worships in the Savannah Diocese and will not be affected by the Communion ban.
"I'm against abortion, but I don't think the government has the right to tell a woman what to do," Stephens said. "I also don't think the Catholic Church should be getting into politics."
Donoghue's spokeswoman said the archbishop was not available for comment.
The bishops' decision affects at least 200 churches in Georgia and the Carolinas.