Election 2008: Voting Groups

Priest Snubs Lawyer over Obama Endorsement

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Conservative lawyer Douglas Kmiec was denied communion recently at a mass connected with a gathering of Catholic business people. The priest denounced Kmiec's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama, then refused to give Kmiec communion.


The presidential campaign has featured a spade of stories about religion and politics. And today, we have another one. Prominent Catholic lawyer and professor Douglas Kmiec has come into conflict with a priest. Kmiec is known as an opponent of abortion and a political conservative, but he endorsed Barack Obama for president.

And as NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports, because of that, he was denied communion.

NINA TOTENBERG: Doug Kmiec served in a top Justice Department post in the Reagan administration, then as dean at Catholic University Law School, and now he teaches at Pepperdine in California. In April, he was asked by a group of conservative Catholic business people to give a talk about why he was endorsing Obama who's pro-choice. Before Kmiec was to speak, Mass was celebrated, and here, according to Kmiec, is what happened.

Professor DOUGLAS KMIEC (Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University, California): Suddenly it was time after the readings for the homily and the priest was talking about me. Indeed, he was only talking about me. And he was talking about, in quite explicit terms, how the only choice for a faithful Catholic was one of a choice - I don't he mentioned Senator McCain by name, but a pro-life candidate, a fully legitimate pro-life candidate. And that anyone who would contemplate or endorse - contemplate voting for or endorse a candidate otherwise was participating in a great moral evil.

TOTENBERG: Then it was time to take communion.

Mr. KMIEC: We lined up in the way Catholics do and I presented myself for communion and he shook his head from left to right and I said to him, I think you're making a serious mistake here, father, and he said, I don't think I've made any mistake.

TOTENBERG: Kmiec's wife, Carol, fled the room in tears. He stayed, but felt wounded, deprived of his faith.

Mr. KMIEC: The people who were in attendance were mortified by what they had witnessed as they should be because faith isn't a weapon, and communion, by the very definition of the word, is community, and what we were witnessing was religion used as a form of anti-community.

TOTENBERG: This is not the first time a well-known Catholic has been denied communion. In 2004, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke forbade presidential candidate John Kerry from taking communion while in the area. But this is the first time in memory that a private citizen, not someone seeking elective office, has received such treatment.

In Los Angeles, the spokesman for Cardinal Mahony said, quote, "it was not within this priest's authority to have done this, it was wrong," close quote. The spokesman added, the archdiocese of Los Angeles and Cardinal Mahony do not endorse any candidate for political office. Neither do we offer sideways intimations or suggestions as to which candidate is more appropriate than another. Canon law experts seem to agree with that assessment, typical is this from canon law expert Ladislas Orsy at Georgetown University Law School here in Washington.

Reverend LADISLAS ORSY: (Law Professor, Georgetown University) The minister of the Eucharist is not a judge and must not try to be one. Communion must not be refused to anyone unless either the local Bishop or the Holy See issued and promulgated a formal decree. You know, he must be formally condemned.

TOTENBERG: Another canon law expert, Father Reginald Whitt at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota, said that no candidate for president would meet all the issue criteria required by the Catholic Church, but it is a greater sin not to vote. So why, you may wonder, has Doug Kmiec, a fervent opponent of abortion endorsed a candidate who supports abortion rights? Because he says, he agrees with Obama on other issues - from the economy to the war.

Mr. KMIEC: I think he's representing our better selves. He's representing - he's calling us to get past divisions that were deliberately exploited for political purposes that, in fact, don't solve problems, they just aggravate them.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And one final political note. Barack Obama has received the endorsement of the highest ranking African-American member of Congress. Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina tells the Associated Press, he will officially announce tomorrow that he is backing Obama.

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