Legislative Hearing on Catholic Corporate Structure Cancelled

By Ted Mann
The Day
March 10, 2009

Hartford State legislators have canceled Wednesday's public hearing on a controversial bill that would have mandated changes in the corporate structure of parishes and institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said that serious questions about the constitutionality of the entire section of the state's corporate statutes applying to religious groups which a group of parishioners had asked lawmakers to amend would have to be settled before a bill could be meaningfully debated in the committee.

"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," Lawlor and McDonald said. "That doesn't seem right. 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.

"With that in mind, it would serve no useful purpose to have a conversation about changing the laws that govern existing Roman Catholic corporations until we know if any of these existing laws are constitutional," they said.

The lawmakers have asked Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who expressed doubt about the constitutionality of the existing legal framework on Monday, for a formal opinion about whether the laws violate the constitution's required separation of church and state.

The statutes in question specifically enumerate corporate procedures, management and protocol for five religious denominations under the statutes governing religious corporations and societies. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, the named denominations are: the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church.

The proposed bill raised by the Judiciary Committee would have required Catholic parishes and other organizations to restructure much of the existing corporate management structure, replacing a system dominated by clergy and church hierarchical officials with boards of directors made up of lay members of their respective congregations. The changes, sought by members of several state parishes that have been rocked by financial scandal in recent years, would have shifted responsibility for financial and administrative management to the boards of directors and away from parish and diocesan officials, who they charge have been inattentive to their calls for reform.

But the proposal triggered a huge wave of resistance from Catholics and others, fanned by an appeal from the bishops of the state's three dioceses who charged that the proposed reforms would represent an attack on the Catholic Church itself.

Catholic leaders and other commentators also suggested the raising of the bill by Lawlor and McDonald was intended as provocation or payback toward church leaders, with whom the two legislators have strongly disagreed in recent years over the continued expansion of the right to marriage for gays and lesbians. The chairmen strongly disputed that claim on Monday, and said they raised the bill in response to concerns from constituents seeking church reforms. The Catholic Church opposes allowing those of the same sex to marry or share in civil unions, while Lawlor and McDonald have been among the most vocal lawmakers in support of extending marriage rights to gay couples.

The Republican minority caucuses in the legislature unanimously opposed the bill, and were preparing to call for the cancelation of the public hearing on the measure when Lawlor and McDonald pulled the plug on the bill for the rest of the current session.

In the meantime, the chairmen called for a meeting of religious groups and legal scholars to discuss the current law and potential changes, and also called for a private meeting among Catholic leaders and those who have advocated for reform of the church's existing management structure, "to see if they can come to a resolution on their own."

"Open and honest communication between these two groups could only help," the legislators said. "For our part, we intend to reach out to representatives of the Catholic Conference and continue the discussion that began in 2008 on this issue. We hope they will agree to meet with us."


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