State's Catholic Bishops Condemn Bill on Finances

By Daniela Altimari
Hartford Courant
March 9, 2009,0,7776047.story

The heads of the legislature's powerful judiciary committee struck back this morning after being accused of pushing a bill that would put religious freedom at risk, while experts said such measures may violate constitutional protections.

Connecticut's Catholic bishops are speaking out against a controversial bill that they claim would strip the church over control of its finances, thus jeopardizing religious liberty. The bill, introduced by the judiciary committee, would allow local parishioners to control their individual church's financial affairs.

State Sen. Andrew McDonald, one of the committee co-chairs, says a prime mover behind the bill is the financial mismanagement in which a priest was convicted of stealing up to $1.4 million from a Darien church.

Experts on religion and the First Amendment say such a proposal is unlikely to pass constitutional muster.

"You cannot tell a church how it can govern itself," said Marc D. Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress in New York. "The church is entitled to govern itself any which way it wants."

Similar efforts by states to control the Catholic Church were commonplace in the 19th Century, said Andrew Walsh, associate director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College.

"The idea you can tell an entity guaranteed freedom in the Constitution that it must handle its money in certain ways I don't think would fly," Walsh said. Priests across the state read a statement during Mass on Sunday condemning the proposal, which is up for public hearing Wednesday.

"This bill violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," said the statement, written by Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell. "It forces a radical reorganization of the legal, financial and administrative structure of our parishes."

The criticism drew a response from the committee co-chairmen.

"It has been incorrectly characterized that this legislation originated from the two of us as an attack on the church and freedom of religion. That is not the truth, and the facts do not support such a claim," said the statement released by McDonald and Rep. Michael Lawlor.

"In reality, this bill was proposed and written by a group of faithful Catholic parishioners from Fairfield County who asked the Judiciary Committee to consider giving the subject a public hearing.

"Especially considering the fact that one of the large-scale embezzlements which gave rise to this proposal originated from a parish corporation in Darien, a town that Senator McDonald represents, we decided to give these parishioners a chance to present to the Judiciary Committee a case for their proposed revisions to existing corporate law."

Despite the "misinformation" that Lawlor and McDonald said surround the bill, they pledged to keep an open mind.

"We respectfully ask that others give them the courtesy of listening to their proposed changes in the existing state law governing Roman Catholic corporations," the statement said. "We ourselves are questioning certain aspects of their proposal and even the constitutionality of the current law. Despite what has been portrayed, we have not endorsed nor are advocating for this proposal."


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