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IVF shouldn't get teacher fired; Diocese went too far in barring worker from undergoing fertility treatments

The church-state conflict seems as though it is going to be rubbed raw this election season. First came the dispute over the Obama administration's insistence -- correct, in our view -- that religiously affiliated businesses such as hospitals and nursing homes not be exempted from a rule requiring their health insurance policies to include birth control.

The Catholic Church, in particular, objected, protesting that the government was infringing on religious freedom. Now, in Indiana, a teacher claims she was forced out of her job at a Catholic school because she dared to use in vitro fertilization to try to get pregnant. She is suing and, if the facts are as she presents them, she should win.

The two matters are different facets of the same question: Where is the line that separates religious freedom and legitimate areas of public regulation? In the matter of birth control, the Catholic Church and its supporters argue that the church should be free to insist upon its dogma in any avenue where it operates. Thus, the argument goes, even the church's ventures into the business world should be exempted from rules that apply to similar businesses that are not religiously affiliated.

Supporters of the administration's rule, meanwhile, contend that employees of religion-backed businesses that are removed from the church, itself -- hospitals, schools, nursing homes and so on -- should not be penalized because the owner happens to be a church. That has been the standard in New York State for a decade, and it has worked.

Now, in the midst of that incendiary argument, a Midwestern diocese has lit a match. In Fort Wayne, Ind., Emily Herx says the local diocese fired her for undergoing IVF treatments, which Catholic teaching rejects. Herx is suing.

This is a question that has not been precisely answered by the Supreme Court. Although the court ruled in January that religious workers can't sue their employers for job discrimination, the justices didn't define who is a religious employee.

It seems clear that a teacher is not a religious employee, but beyond that question are other thorny issues. For example, Catholic teaching also rejects the use of contraception. Does the church feel it can fire teachers who use birth control pills? What about teachers whose non-Catholic husbands use condoms?

In fact, this firing -- again, assuming it is as Herx contends -- is a severe abuse of employer authority. Imagine the outcry if an Islamic school required Christian employees to be bound by the rules of its religion. What if a Jewish school required all Christian employees to be circumcised?

Sometimes, the line between church and state is inarguably crossed. Mandatory prayer in school certainly does that. So would taxing churches on the donations they receive, or establishing an official state religion.

Other times, the case is less clear even when defenders carry signs insisting that it is not. In both these cases, the church holds the weaker argument. All of our constitutional rights are limited. Freedom of the press is restricted by libel laws and other matters. The guarantee of free speech famously does not grant the right to yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

So the question arises: Does the concept of religious freedom allow an employer to fire a worker for seeking help conceiving a child? It seems to us a clear and grievous violation.