|Church Financing Bill Dead
Lawmakers Cancel Hearing on Controversial Proposal
By Ken Dixon
March 10, 2009
HARTFORD — The Democratic co-chairmen of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee on Tuesday abruptly killed a controversial bill that would give Catholic parishioners more power on their local church boards.
Just before noon, the lawmakers canceled Wednesday's public hearing on the controversial change to the state law on the way Roman Catholic churches are run. They said the bill is dead for this year.
News of the cancellation — and the termination of the proposed legislation for this legislative session — emerged in the middle of a noon news conference of minority Republican lawmakers, who claimed the bill was unconstitutional.
The GOP leaders didn't miss a beat, however, as they immediately promised their own hearing.
It will keep alive a contentious statewide issue, which has resulted in jammed phone lines at the Capitol and sent lawmakers researching 143-year-old state statutes that set up incorporation agreements for religious groups.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said they would welcome busloads of Catholics from throughout the state and host an afternoon-long hearing on the issue.
"What are we going to tell them?" Cafero quipped during the news conference. "Game called on account of rain?"
McKinney noted that on Monday he said the controversial bill did not warrant a public hearing and should be rejected as unconstitutional.
Speaking after the Democratic committee leaders withdrew the bill, McKinney said Tuesday many southwestern Connecticut parishioners had already set their schedules to drive to the Capitol.
"I've received literally hundreds of e-mails from constituents who said they're coming up on Wednesday, who have made plans and made arrangements," McKinney said. "The last-minute cancellation doesn't give them a chance to reorganize. If they're going to be here, they deserve an opportunity to be heard."
Democratic lawmakers have also been invited to the hearing. Republicans have reserved Room 2-C in the Legislative Office Building to listen to the backlash to the now-dead proposal. Busloads of Catholics from throughout the state are expected to arrive in time for a noon rally on the Capitol's north steps.
House Majority Leader Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said the Catholics are welcome to celebrate their freedom of religion, but he asked Republicans to avoid pouring political gasoline on a volatile issue.
"It's not a partisan issue," Donovan said. "We join them in opposing this bill and joining the people who may come up here tomorrow, to say that we welcome them and celebrate with them, a stand for religious freedom."
Donovan said many lawmakers were surprised there were any religious statutes. "I think we really need to take a good look at them," he said. "They were done in a different era, and we should look to see what they say."
He said since the bill was originally brought up by a former Republican Greenwich lawmaker, it's unwise for Republicans to use this year's version as a wedge against Democrats, who have a 113-37 majority in the House and rule the Senate 24-12.
Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, withdrew the proposal from a public-hearing list in response to a request by two reform-minded Catholics: Tom Gallagher, of Greenwich, and Paul Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.
Gallagher and Lakeland, who support the change in corporation law, held a morning news conference in the Capitol complex Tuesday in which they said today's church members deserve more voting power on the 87 local Bridgeport Diocese boards, which are dominated by the bishop.
"There are some practical and good reasons to incorporate every parish, but as a practical matter, I'm not aware of any governance expert who thinks it's a good idea for an individual to be on 87 corporate boards at the same time," Gallagher said.
McDonald and Lawlor on Tuesday asked Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to research law on religious corporations, a section of statutes that date back to 1866.
"For reasons that are unclear, Connecticut has had generations-old laws on the books singling out particular religions and treating them differently from other religions in our statutes," McDonald and Lawlor said in a joint statement.
"That doesn't seem right," they said. "In fact, many of our existing corporate laws dealing with particular religious groups appear to us to be unconstitutional under the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If that is correct, any changes to that law would likely also be unconstitutional."
The lawmakers said there's no point in even talking about changing the law on Catholic corporations until Blumenthal researches the issue. Blumenthal said Tuesday he had not yet received the lawmakers' formal request. On Monday, both he and McDonald said the existing statute seemed to have some constitutional problems as well.
McDonald and Lawlor said later this year they plan to host a gathering of legal and religious scholars from throughout the state to discuss the issue.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell approved of the disposal of the legislation.
"The co-chairs absolutely made the right decision by canceling the public hearing on the bill," Rell said Tuesday. "This proposal was blatantly unconstitutional, insensitive and inappropriate."
But Voice of the Faithful, a reform-minded offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church, said in a statement Tuesday revising the state law is a good idea at a time when southwestern Connecticut churches have lost millions of dollars through embezzlement and mismanagement.
"Contrary to Bishop [William E.] Lori's assertion, in his diocese the clergy have proven to be less than stellar stewards of its financial assets," the statement reads.
"On Bishop Lori's watch, we have seen the former pastor of St. John's parish in Darien sentenced to confinement in federal prison for embezzling over $1 million, and have never heard the end of the story regarding the pastor of St. Michael's in Greenwich who was discharged for alleged financial irregularities."
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