I'M NOT a perfect Catholic. When Mrs. Paul had a monopoly on meatless Fridays, I sometimes managed to get my hands on a burger. Once, at confession, I lied about a sin, which must amount to purgatorial perjury. I've missed Mass, sassed the sisters behind their backs (I'm irreverent, not stupid) and think that papal annulments are just another way to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E. And you might be surprised to learn that I have no problem with artificial birth control, at least the kind that isn't "abortion in a pill."

But for all of that, I am a Catholic, and I respect my church's right to demand certain things of its members, including opposition to abortion and - even though it may result in unwanted pregnancies - a recognition that all sexual acts must be open to the creation of new life. That means no condoms, no pills, no coils or sterilization (although Pope Benedict recently softened his stance somewhat and noted that condoms are useful to stop the spread of AIDS).

The fact that the vast majority of Catholics disagree with that ban doesn't mean that the church doesn't have the right to maintain it as fundamental doctrine.

And for anyone who has fleeting knowledge of the Constitution, it also means that President Obama is dead-wrong in forcing Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.

Sure, there's a narrow exception for houses of worship. You can't make the Church of St. Abstinence provide free condoms to its parishioners along with the weekly newsletter.

But groups like St. Joseph's University, Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital and all the Catholic charities groups in the nation will find themselves with a Hobson's choice under the new guidelines issued by Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius: either provide insurance plans that cover an employee's birth control (with no co-pay) or face monumental fines that could essentially put them out of business.

Sibelius is a Catholic cheerleader for the Obama administration, and provides cover for those most liberal members of my church who seem to have no problem with a president who has never made a secret of his strong support for abortion rights. They came out in large numbers to vote for "Hope and Change" the last time around, allowing other left-wing Catholic cheerleaders like Maureen Dowd and E.J. Dionne to crow about how Catholics were no monolithic, antiwoman bloc.

And it is very true that we are anything but a monolith. Most of us do think that artificial birth control is neither sinful nor expendable in this hypersexualized society, but a good number of us (me included) think it's primarily necessary to prevent abortion and not because of any fundamental right to screw whoever you want, without any consequence.

And many of us support the death penalty because we see a big difference between the destruction of innocent human life and society's right to exact the heaviest penalty for the most heinous crimes. That goes against a fundamental precept of the church as well, for those who are in the business of counting the hypocrisies.

In short, Catholics are pretty much like other American citizens in our taste and our beliefs, thereby demonstrating that President Kennedy was right when he promised a doubtful public that you could be both a person of faith, as well as a patriot.

But that is exactly the point that Obama and his tone-deaf supporters have missed in this whole, horrible debate about forcing Catholics to subsidize birth control - or else. Despite what the administration's apologists have tried to argue, any rule that penalizes a religious organization for holding true to its fundamental principles does great and permanent violence to the First Amendment. You can pretend all you want that not allowing employees of Catholic institutions to get free condoms and IUDs is discriminatory, but who forced them to draw blood at Catholic hospitals, teach in Catholic classrooms or enter data into Catholic-owned computers in the first place? Why, in fact, would they want to work for any organization that obviously doesn't support their right to "reproductive freedom"?

The administration is doing a macabre dance around what is quite clearly a constitutional Inquisition. In telling Catholics that our religion is not as important as a woman's "choice," we are learning that JFK was wrong. Apparently, you cannot be both a Catholic and a law-abiding citizen under the Obama administration because you can obey the law only if you violate your religious principles, or pay a hefty fine for exercising your constitutional right to free exercise.

Unless Obama changes his position, all Catholics - regardless of their views on "choice" - should deny him their vote. If we don't, we are accepting a seat at the back of the national bus.


Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.