Connecticut Considers Bill That Sidelines Bishops, Dictates Church Financial Oversight

Catholic News Agency
March 9, 2009

Hartford, Conn., Mar 9, 2009 / 12:15 pm (CNA).- Two Connecticut legislators introduced a bill this past Thursday that has Catholics up-in-arms about the state's apparent attempt to meddle in Church governance. Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport called an emergency meeting on Friday, where he said the bill "directly attacks the structure of the Roman Catholic Church."

"If this bill were to be enacted, your bishop, would have virtually, virtually no real relationship with the 87 parishes…they could go off independently, some of them could break off from the Church if they wished, and go their own way as has happened, for example, with the Episcopal Church. And the pastors would be figureheads, simply working for a board of trustees," Bishop Lori explained at a meeting of Catholic school principals.

The bill, which was introduced last Thursday by the chairs of the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut State Legislature, Senator Andrew McDonald of Stamford and Representative Michael Lawlor of East Haven, attempts to radically restructure the way that the state allows the Catholic Church to incorporate.

Both lawmakers, who are prominent homosexuals, have been vociferous advocates of same-sex marriage in Connecticut and have spoken out against the Catholic Church's opposition to both civil unions and same-sex marriage.

According to the bill, the pastor of the congregation would report to the board of directors on all "administrative and financial matters." In addition, the archbishop or bishop would serve as an "ex-officio" member and would lose his voting rights.

Under current law, the archbishop or bishop serves as the head of the board of each individual parish, requires the pastor to answer to him and has voting rights as a board member.

The bill states that its purpose is to "provide for the investigation of the misappropriation of funds by religious corporations," but it only targets the Catholic Church. Sen. McDonald told the Connecticut Post that the bill still allows the Church to deal with "matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices."

McDonald said that the bill was spurred by a recent crime in which a Darien, Connecticut priest was convicted of stealing up to $1.4 million in donations from his parish. The senator claimed that his constituents asked him to do something to create greater transparency, and so he introduced the bill.

And yet, the bill is strikingly similar to the dissident group Voice of the Faithful's guidelines for working to change the structure of the Church.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport reacted to the legislation, calling it "a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage.

"The State has no right to interfere in the internal affairs and structure of the Catholic Church," Bishop Lori stated.

The head of the Church in Bridgeport pointed out that the bill "is directed only at the Catholic Church but could someday be forced on other denominations. The State has no business controlling religion."

Bishop Lori also defended his pastors' "exemplary job of sound stewardship and financial accountability, in full cooperation with their parishioners."

The State Legislature is another matter, he said, mentioning that it "has not reversed a $1 billion deficit in this fiscal year" and that its efforts "to try to manage the Catholic Church makes no sense."

"The Catholic Church not only lives within her means but stretches her resources to provide more social, charitable, and educational services than any other private institution in the State. This bill threatens those services at a time when the State is cutting services. The Catholic Church is needed now more than ever."

Lori rejected the bill as "irrational, unlawful, and bigoted" and said that it "jeopardizes the religious liberty of our Church."

Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford also spoke out against the bill. "This bill violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," he wrote. "It forces a radical reorganization of the legal, financial, and administrative structure of our parishes."

He continued by explaining that the proposed structure "is contrary to the Apostolic nature of the Catholic Church because it disconnects parishes from their Pastors and their Bishop."

Local Catholics told the Connecticut Post that they heard about the bill from announcements at weekend Masses.

"I'm upset by it," Bridgeport resident William Mortimer said. "I'm amazed that this bill is being considered by these two legislators."

Mary Sholomicky, 49, heard about the bill at a noon Mass she attended. "It was quite a shock because of the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to practice religion. If I didn't want to do that, I'd live in China. Any person of any religious denomination should really be nervous. They are targeting Catholics now; who knows who's next down the road six months, six years," she told the Connecticut Post.

Sholomicky said the law "would take away the authority of the bishop, the priests and the Pope."

Philip Lacovara, a constitutional lawyer and a Catholic, wrote a letter to the Judicial Committee saying, "You now have before your Committee a bill that tests your fidelity to your constitutional duty. The bill is No. 1098, which candidly announces that its purpose is to 'revise the corporate governance provisions [of the Connecticut Statutes] applicable to the Roman Catholic Church.'"

"In more than forty years as a constitutional law teacher and practitioner," writes Lacovara, "I cannot recall a single piece of proposed legislation at any level of government that more patently runs afoul of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment that does this bill."

A public hearing on the bill is set for Wednesday, March 11 at 12:00 noon in Room 2C of the Legislative Office Building of the State Capitol in Hartford.


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