One of the sayings attributed to Confucius is usually translated: “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.” I thought about this analect recently as I was reading a document from a decidedly non-Confucian source.

In mid April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued its harshest assessment yet of policies from the Obama administration, New York City and state legislatures that add up in the hierarchy’s mind to “Religious Liberty Under Attack.” The USCCB “Statement on Religious Liberty” contains what are labeled “concrete examples,” but in each instance, cited facts are misstated, government motivations are twisted and conclusions are erroneous.

And all of this rests on a faulty premise about what “religious liberty” can and does mean in a pluralistic society. In keeping with the famous “stopped watch” analogy, the bishops are right in asserting that “religious liberty is more than freedom of worship” – like going to mass or praying the rosary. Real religious liberty is broader than that.

I’d say it also means that government cannot tell churches what to believe; it means that we try to accommodate religious observance that doesn’t have a significant adverse effect on the rights of others; it means government can’t play favorites among religions or even between theists and atheists and it means that persons of faith can proselytize, evangelize and even condemn those who don’t believe so long as they do it peacefully and on their own dime.

But it does not mean what the rest of the bishops’ document demands. I’d paraphrase that demand as something like this: “We in the institutional church have the right to get as much money from the government as our well-heeled lobbyists can squeeze out of it, and we as a corporate entity demand that we be allowed to ignore any and all rules, regulations or civil rights laws that we don’t like.” (The bishops may not quite see their view that way, but I’ve never been accused of not calling it as I see it.)

Well, this construction cannot be allowed to stand. With this interpretation, the church ends up setting the rules: anything that violates some claimed tenet of some faith, no matter how trivial it may be, becomes a justification for exemption from laws that apply to the rest of us. Any adverse effect this has on anybody else is just “tough luck,” merely the cost of doing the church’s business.

Of course, the bishops’ document also hits hard against the adminstration’s efforts to have no-copay insurance coverage for contraception even though it has repeatedly tried to find a way to keep any connection between a religiously affiliated hospital and the act of providing information about access to contraception at the (to use a Latin phrase) “de minimis” level.

Contrary to a Baptist “moral theologian” at one recent congressional hearing, having a fundamentalist university simply inform women employees or students about how to obtain no-copay birth control is not “rape of the soul.” Contrary to Bishop William Lori’s statement at that same hearing, allowing employees at a Catholic hospital to have access to birth control is not comparable to forcing an Orthodox Jewish deli to serve pork. Have these men no moral perspective?

A simple administrative act like handing out a form indicating where to call to get insurance coverage from a private entity simply cannot seriously be treated as complicity in a sin comparable to murder, theft or adultery.

The bishops’ pronouncement also complains about the revocation of a federal grant to the USCCB to help victims of sex trafficking.

Lori and his colleagues have concluded that anti-Catholic bias was the reason. I would suggest it was something else. In defiance of government requirements and sound policy, neither the church, nor any of its 100 subgrantees, was allowed to even mention contraception or abortion to these young victims of abuse.

A federal judge in Massachusetts has just ruled in the matter. You don’t get grants and contracts, he said, when you can’t or won’t do the work required. He noted that it would violate the principle of church-state separation if a religious organization could “impose religiously based restrictions on the expenditure of taxpayer funds;” that this would “implicitly endorse the religious beliefs of the Catholic Church.”

That’s what we are up against. So, I started with Confucius on language. I will conclude with poet W.H. Auden on the same topic. He wrote, “When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over.”

We are lucky in this country that the “cultural wars” of the past 50 years have rarely used “physical force.” But the murder of Dr. George Tiller three years ago, the killing of a Sikh gas station owner four days after 9-11, the bombing and vandalizing of mosques and the hate-filled activities of anti-gay individuals whose actions lead to the suicides of others all present the world that comes when hate displaces understanding.

We can’t wait for forces of bigotry to twist the language to the point that policies are put in place that truly create a set of second-class citizens in America based on what we do or do not believe about religion.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.