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Freedom rings 

One of the scary things about the proposed merger of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and St. Vincent Health System was that it would have forced Arkansas defenders of religious freedom to fight on two fronts. To the ongoing and bitter battle over diverting public-school funds to church schools would have been added an unwholesome alliance between the state's only public teaching hospital and a Catholic institution that could have used taxpayers' money to advance sectarian beliefs.

It was with great relief we learned over the weekend that the UAMS-St. Vincent merger will not come about, UAMS officials announcing that discussions had ended without an agreement. St. Vincent had proposed the "alliance," as the parties preferred to call it, and UAMS officials seemed at first eager to barter away Arkansans' freedoms for budgetary gain. Both hospitals contended they would experience significant savings by combining certain clinical services and sharing management functions. But helping a Catholic hospital save money is no part of the mission of UAMS, and we doubt the Catholic hierarchy, whose approval would have been required for any alliance, would be greatly moved by the idea of saving money for a non-Catholic institution. Certainly the bishops would not be nearly so interested in that as in advancing Catholic beliefs. Those beliefs in regard to abortion, contraception, end-of-life care and other clinical services are not shared by all taxpayers. How a hospital divided on these matters could stand was never adequately explained, being impossible.

(While abortion and contraception have long been contentious, even as they've become more widely accepted, end-of-life care is gaining ground. Four states — Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Montana — now have "death with dignity" laws, allowing terminally ill patients to request medication they can use to die peacefully. More states will follow.)

We don't know exactly what factors caused UAMS leaders to change their minds. We'd like to think that freedom of religion was involved. Church and state are separate entities in America, by careful design. It's a bedrock principle of this country that no American can be taxed to support someone else's religion. A UAMS-St. Vincent merger would have been challenged in court immediately.

If the hospital question is resolved, efforts to circumvent the First Amendment in another way will continue and likely intensify. Some states have already approved voucher programs, taking money from underfunded public schools and giving it to students who attend private schools, mostly church-related. Voucher programs have been most eagerly embraced in states that have big Catholic populations, and therefore big parochial-school systems, unlike Arkansas. But voucherism has spread even to states like North Carolina. The Republican Party loves vouchers; they're pretty much the signature issue of the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. And where Catholic bishops once were by far the biggest lobby for vouchers, the bishops have been joined by influential allies — big-money critics of public schools and teacher unions, and fundamentalist Protestants who want their own schools. Arkansas has plenty of these, and a new Republican majority in the General Assembly. Arkansans who cherish the public schools and religious freedom need gird their loins even tighter.

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