If I learned that somebody was going to blow this office to smithereens in two hours, I would not simply walk out the door brooding on that valued confidence but would alert all manner of authorities to stop it.

Which brings us to the case of a clergyman who hears a guy confess he has sexually molested a child. Should he not pick up the phone and call the cops? Or get the criminal to a shrink instantly? Or phone the mother of the kid?

It would not surprise me to learn that 78 percent of the American public would say yes, he should. He should have got real active, like me (in the case of blowing up the newspaper).

But at this point we might refer to the Constitution and our laws that forbid the state to mess about with religious beliefs.

If somebody were to set up a religion calling for random murder, then the state has the right to say that is not religion within the sense of the constitutional protection, and the state may move in to stop such a "religion."

So the protection is not absolute. But in the child-molesting case, the clergyman was a member of a Christian church, though the name of the denomination was not familiar to me, and it may be assumed he believes in the divinity of Christ and those other usual tenets of the Christian church in general. And these beliefs were known to those who devised the Constitution -- they are not something cooked up last month.

The trouble comes in forgetting that many clergymen do not think of themselves as cut-rate cops who go around preventing crime without cost to the taxpayer.

And in this age we are almost certain to forget that religion is not the same thing at all as high ethics, respectable living or common good sense.

It is supernatural, to begin with, and flatly contradicts much that may be called common sense. This is not to praise it or dispraise it, simply to say factually that it is supernatural, and that belief in it is protected by the Constitution.

Also, it is not a matter of opinion but of unarguable fact that religion has been taught and believed in for a great many centuries. There are creeds, articles of faiths, records of councils, easily available scriptures and the like. While there are great sectarian arguments there are also central tenets believed in by all of them, and by Christianity in general for centuries.

One of them is that the deity of this religion, Christ, has the power to forgive sin and the power to confer "eternal life" and, in general, to control things that mortals cannot.

Even a cursory reading of the literature will show the church believes there is no crime that cannot be forgiven, not by a clergyman (who is a sinner like ordinary men) but by God, and the church has always maintained it has the duty to proclaim this, whether anybody believes it or not. Furthermore, the central mystery of the church has always been that its particular God came to earth specifically to "save sinners," as they put it, and that in some mysterious way the crucifixion atoned for "the sins of the whole world."

We may think, if we consider a child molester or a murderer, or for that matter Hitler, that justice is more to the point, and nuts to this mercy business.

What we may think, however, does not change the fact that a religion is not based on what we think. We may view the child molester as a wretch to be locked up and done with (so may a clergyman think) but we are less likely than a clergyman to say the criminal is also a creature for whom God himself was once killed. This difference of belief may lead to a difference of action.

On ordinary ethical grounds, religion aside, it is wrong to encourage a man to tell you things in confidence, then to break your word to him. If a clergyman cannot keep silent when he hears of a great crime, then he should make that clear before the confession begins. It strikes me as abominable for him to break his word voluntarily, and intolerable for the state to try to force him to betray what he considers sacred things.

As atheists are and ought to be protected in their view of religion, so clergymen deserve equal protection, no more and no less.

A cleric is likely to believe in total forgiveness of crime, so that while the punishment may be justly inflicted, still the forgiveness is certain if the criminal applies for it. And though it is shocking to hear the crime confessed, it is more shocking to betray the trust of a confessor.

It cannot be expected that so radical a view of things will be accepted by ordinary sensible people, or the man in the street necessarily (though the religion maintains it is the man in the street who is most likely to understand it rather than the elite). It is factually unarguable, however, that some people do believe this and that many clergymen say they do, and that this belief may not be persecuted by the state.

Separation of church and state runs both ways.

Nobody doubts a state can be devised in which religion is outlawed, but in America it can only be done at the cost of undermining the state itself and pitching its Constitution away.