Following in the footsteps of a few bishops in other parts of the country, three Catholic bishops in the South have declared that politicians in their dioceses will be denied communion if they support a woman's right to choose to have an abortion.

Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte, N.C., joined with Bishop Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., and Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta, Ga., to issue the decree.

"Because support for pro-abortion legislation is gravely sinful, such persons should not be admitted to Holy Communion," the statement declared, noting that those who are in "a state of grave sin" should go to confession before coming to mass for communion.

While it is unclear how many politicians will be impacted, priests in Charlotte are expected to report the names of dissenting candidates or elected officials to the bishop.  

Some Catholic leaders are troubled by this policy. Bishop Joseph Gossman of Raleigh, N.C., chose not to sign the decree because he feels that it's up to all persons who come forward for communion to judge their own souls.

All churches have the right to set criteria for membership, of course. Such criteria will define the character of the religious community. But when church leaders coerce politicians in an attempt to enforce church doctrine by governmental force, it risks a church-state crisis.

If all denominations adopted this strategy, elections would quickly devolve into religious conflicts. Larger denominations would be able to control "their" politicians, and religious minorities would suffer. Sounds like theocracy to me!

Fortunately, a large majority of Catholic voters and Catholic officials have rejected the hierarchy's unwise gambit. A recent TIME poll revealed that three-quarters of Catholics disagree with the bishops who would deny the Eucharist to politicians and nearly 70 percent said the Catholic Church should not be trying to influence either the positions that Catholic politicians take on the issues or the way that Catholics vote. Moreover, the poll revealed similar margins "even among majorities of Catholics who consider themselves very religious and who attend Mass at least once a week."

In Charleston, parishioners expressed mixed feelings over the announcement. Erin McKee described it as politically motivated and as going against separation of church and state.

"The church is against the death penalty. I don't see them doing anything about those people," she said, referring to politicians who support the punishment.