I know a woman on a crazy diet who nevertheless went with her friend to a corporation feast at a fine restaurant, where she declined the shrimp, the soup, the salad, the beef, the vegetables, so the poor waiter asked if anything was wrong.

"Oh, not at all," she said. "Religious principles, you know."

When a fabulous dessert cart appeared, the waiter naturally sailed past her, but she hailed him and said:

"The raspberry bombe, please, and I think the chocolate mousse, too." She told me later:

"I know he wondered what kind of religion it was that didn't go in for fish, meat, soup, salad or anything else except sugar and goo, but the thing is, Tim is berserk for desserts and always takes two, and I always take two for him. In New York I found it was just easier, when I wasn't eating anything, to say 'religious principles,' which saved explanations. Waiters are used to it."

Everybody else is used to it, too, I hope. We all know people who would die before eating a cow or a pig or drinking a Coke or a gibson, because such things offend their religion; and being a good American means being tolerant and expecting everybody to be distinctly odd. I am not sure quite what the law is on rattlesnakes and cyanide cocktails -- there are probably limits on religious customs -- but in general our law permits (and I fully approve) wide liberty in religious matters.

Now many religious people oppose pornography, and have actual lists of pornographic books and magazines. This is not surprising. The United States government once classified "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as pornographic. Anyway, Playboy is considered pornographic by many religious folk, possibly because people like Jimmy Carter once observed in its pages that he had felt lust in his heart (the only known case of an American president who ever felt such an unseemly emotion) and critics of Playboy say that while the magazine may have articles by the best-known serious writers of the nation, still nobody buys it for those articles and nobody ever reads them. What people get the magazine for (this argument goes) is its raunchy advice on how to score and its pictures of girls. Some say they are art, some say no.

Now some drugstore chains, for quite a while, have been selling Playboy from behind the counter, where it is kept hidden from public view. Maybe I should say I have never bought a copy in my life, counting on seeing it lying around on somebody's desk, and at worst I can read it at my barber's on 15th Street.

So I have never delved into the ethics or the constitutional questions raised by drugstores that sell it but don't display it. I guess I thought it was a halfway reasonable compromise. A few days ago, however, one great drugstore chain announced it would not sell Playboy at all, and this decision has disturbed me.

I do not question the right of any store to sell or not sell a particular magazine, and of course nobody expects any gaggle of businessmen to get hung up on such things as the rights of Playboy readers or (God save us all) Playboy itself. People who sell things usually think first of all about customer good will, and if faced with a decision that will offend somebody (no matter what is decided) they can be relied on to offend what they hope is the fewest number.

They have noted, I expect, that I never buy their Playboys and never complimented them for selling it, whereas a good many people have told them they are angry at the sale of this magazine in the drugstore (which in American culture is very like a sacred place, when you come to think of it).

Besides, since they have no legal duty to sell it, and since those who want it can always get it on other newsstands or through the mail (or at Mr. Mundey's barber shop) the stores can hardly be charged with censorship or book burning.

So why should the decision to drop Playboy from the drugstore stock bother me? I suppose it is because (being a writer) I like seeing the printed word sold as widely as possible; an unworthy motive, no doubt.

Scarcely had I digested this Playbody development than I read of a Roman Catholic theologian who has been rebuked by his superiors in the Vatican because his views and statements on a wide range of sexual matters are considered ambiguous or wrong. He will be stripped (if you can forgive the word) of his license as Catholic theologian unless he corrects his views.

He does not put out a magazine or anything, and my own guess is that he is not what you would call a pornographer. His views are judged damaging to correct understanding, however, by those empowered to make such a decision within his own church.

Surely nobody doubts the right of a church to insist its spokesmen adhere to what the church considers sound doctrine and moral teaching. And the theologian is bound to be aware, you might think, what limits he faces in his particular job. So I very much like this case, in which I am happy for the theologian and his church to work it out together without the least advice from me. It is grand when you can find a story on the front page of the paper about some heated controversy and not give a fried damn how it turns out or who wins.

All the same, the Playboy incident and the theologian incident both show that religious people are not concerned merely with their private religious practices but are invariably keen to correct what they perceive as immoral speech. It is their duty to God, as they see it, to do what they can to limit or prevent dangerous words to enter innocent ears.

Which is all very well, up to a point. A religion can lay down any rules it pleases for the faithful who wish to adhere to the tenets of that religion (though as I say I am shaky when it comes to rattlesnakes and cyanide). But there must be an accommodation (in America) with the secular law, as spelled out in the Constitution and the body of court decisions, that governs all citizens, whether religious or not.

A church may properly forbid its adherents to read Playboy or to rethink masturbation or anything else. But it may not pronounce on these matters with any binding authority (however convinced of its own divine correctness) for a nation, at least not this nation. And time and time again we see all manner of churches keen to straighten out the heathen, as you might say. Inside their temples, meeting houses and churches, they may rightly govern their faithful with all the authority they can persuade the faithful to accept, but they must not (if one may gently say so) suppose their writ runs in the nation at large.