THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is discussion on Capitol Hill about the role of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in using its political influence to shape the health care bill to their liking. At least one progressive lawmaker is crying foul.

The inclusion of a restrictive abortion clause in the House health care bill, and the Catholic Church’s involvement in its passage, has legislators and others debating the extent to which religious organizations can appropriately delve into politics. […]

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote an op-ed in Politico on Monday saying the IRS should pay closer attention to the Conference’s involvement in efforts to influence legislation, given its tax-exempt status.

“The role the bishops played in the pushing the Stupak amendment, which unfairly restricts access for low-income women to insurance coverage for abortions, was more than mere advocacy,” Woolsey wrote. “They seemed to dictate the finer points of the amendment, and managed to bully members of Congress to vote for added restrictions on a perfectly legal surgical procedure.”

In her piece, Woolsey added, “Who elected [the USCCB] to Congress? … [Their] political effort was subsidized by taxpayers, since the Council enjoys tax-exempt status.”

For the record, it seems highly unlikely that the Bishops will face IRS scrutiny over its lobbying efforts on health care — federal tax law prohibits houses of worship from intervening in elections, but working on issues is permitted.

Also from The God Machine this week:

* Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals before his humiliating downfall, is still trying to work on a comeback. Haggard, perhaps best known for his extended extra-marital affair with a male prostitute, believes he’s been “cured” of his homosexuality and ready to lead a flock again. “America loves a scandal, but they love a comeback even more,” Haggard said.

* South Carolina’s state legislature approved a Christian-themed license plate last year, featuring a cross in front of a stained-glass window, accompanied by the words “I Believe.” This week, a federal court found the plates “clearly unconstitutional,” and chastised state officials for having “embroiled the state in unnecessary (and expensive) litigation.”

* This week, Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding its first major conference on astrobiology, “The new science that seeks to find life elsewhere in the cosmos and to understand how it began on Earth….. [T]he unlikely gathering of prominent scientists and religious leaders shows that some of the most tradition-bound faiths are seriously contemplating the possibility that life exists in myriad forms beyond this planet. Astrobiology has arrived, and religious and social institutions — even the Vatican — are taking note.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.