PORTLAND (AP) – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has defended its decision to block a state lawmaker who supports abortion rights from speaking about prescription medicine at a Catholic church in Augusta.

The diocese sought to clarify its position Thursday after Democratic Rep. Arthur Lerman of Augusta, who had been invited to discuss prescription drug programs at St. Mary of the Assumption Church, was asked not to come.

The sponsor of Lerman’s talk withdrew her invitation after Lerman’s anti-abortion opponent for the District 57 House seat complained to the diocese.

Claire Poulin, the woman who had extended the invitation, contacted Lerman to rescind the invitation after Lerman’s opponent, Republican Michael Hein of Augusta, called the diocese to point out that Lerman was scheduled to speak.

Spokeswoman Sue Bernard said the diocese has had a policy for more than 20 years of prohibiting political candidates from speaking at churches in Maine while they are campaigning for office.

“We don’t endorse them, nor do we offer up time to have them come talk in church,” Bernard said.

It was not clear Thursday whether most Catholic dioceses in the United States have similar policies prohibiting political candidates from speaking at churches.

Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said he did not know whether the diocese’s policy is typical.

Bernard said Bishop Richard Malone of the Portland diocese supports a separate policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in July that Catholic institutions “should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles,” including the church’s opposition to abortion.

Bernard emphasized that Malone is not trying to prevent Catholics who support abortion rights from attending religious services, nor is he denying Communion to Catholics who support abortion rights.

Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, a practicing Catholic who supports abortion rights, said through his spokesman that he was surprised that Hein “would inject religion into politics.”

“Especially during campaigns, there should be a separation of church and state,” Lee Umphrey said.

Lerman said he is disappointed that he was not able to provide useful information to churchgoers. But he acknowledged political seasons are often sensitive.

AP-ES-10-08-04 0216EDT

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