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I write on behalf of Maryland Catholics, particularly the Catholic community of Anne Arundel County, clergy and laity, who have been insulted and greatly offended by a pair of half-page editorial cartoons published in recent successive Sunday editions of The Anne Arundel County Sun.

My purpose is to characterize the cartoons as blatant religious bigotry of a kind not seen in this part of the country for decades, and to protest in the strongest possible terms their publication by The Anne Arundel County Sun.

The first cartoon, published Aug. 25, portrays a county public school principal as a Catholic prelate who wields a grotesque iron fistas he reads from Scripture. The words "I come not to send peace, buta sword" -- a particularly offensive profanation of the Christian message -- appear on the page to which he has opened.

The second cartoon, published a week later, dressed the principal in a Catholic bishop's episcopal robes. Again, a Christian symbol is profaned: On the cross he wears appear the words "fear" and "intimidation."

The principal, identified by The Anne Arundel County Sun as a Catholic, appears from the newspaper's accounts to have interpreted county school policy in a way that includes abortion among behaviors that might posedanger or cause harm to high school girls.

Clearly, there is basis for concern regarding the risks that attend abortions performed here in Maryland, where government resolutely has refused to set and enforce health and safety standards for clinics and medical offices in which legal abortions are performed.

This failure of state policy was the subject of a CBS "60 Minutes" segment in April. The focuses ofthe segment were three victims of unsafe, unregulated (but legal) abortion procedures available in Maryland: One was dead; the second, consigned to a Baltimore nursing home, completely paralyzed, unable to even speak; the third, rendered sterile.

Just as clearly as there is reason for concern about abortion risks, there also is basis for concern that the compassion and guidance of a caring adult should be available to the teen-ager who experiences post-abortion stress,or whocontemplates abortion but not its attendant physical and psychological health risks.

If school officials cannot play this crucial guidance role, who will? Not parents in most cases. Parental rights in this regard have been denied by a state legislature whose members refuse to require physician-abortionists to communicate with parents of teen-agers who contemplate or have undergone abortion operations.

The practices of one such Maryland physician are the subject of a lawsuit instituted last year by a mother who was not informed of her 16-year-old daughter's abortion until it was too late. The lawsuit accusesthe physician of "negligently and recklessly" puncturing the girl's uterus and cervix and then leaving her on the operating table of his Laurel office for four hours, "bleeding to death," without monitoringher vital signs.

Fair-minded people are likely to support an educator whose motivation is the health and safety of his students, especially where, as here, other public health officials have avoided their own responsibility and prevented parents from exercising theirs. Still, The Anne Arundel County Sun has every right to criticize the principal's actions and question his motivation. So has anyone else.

But the cartoons push the right to free expression to its limits. They are inflammatory and defamatory. The stereotypes they perpetuate are offensive and hurtful to Catholics. They hold up the Catholic Church and its hierarchy to ridicule because of its teaching. They hold upa man to ridicule because he is a Catholic.

We earnestly hope that religious bigotry will not again be injected into the public debateof abortion or any other matter. The Sunpapers and all the media should serve as a guardian against this sort of behavior, not, as here, its perpetrator.

Editor's Note: Richard J. Dowling is executive director of the Annapolis-based Maryland Catholic Conference.

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