Defend the Wall!: Conn. Bishops Rally for Church-State Separation Sort of

By Sandhya Bathija
Americans United for Separation of Chruch and State
March 11, 2009

Today, the Roman Catholic bishops sponsored a rally at the Connecticut Capitol building in support of church-state separation. They didn't exactly bill it that way, but that's what it was.

Considering this is the same church hierarchy that speaks so adamantly against same-sex marriage and reproductive rights — and believes that our country's laws should reflect the church's doctrines on these issues — a rally to support the church-state wall seems rather ironic.

But today it's not about the church pushing its religious doctrine on the state. It's about the state pushing its views on the church, and now the bishops would like everyone to remember and respect church-state separation!

According to the Hartford Courant, church leaders are angry over a proposed bill, which has already died before its hearing today, that would have taken financial power from the Catholic bishops and turned it over to the parishioners. The measure would have created lay councils of seven to 13 people to oversee the business affairs of local parishes.

Though the proposal will not move forward, 4,000 Catholics still gathered to make the point that the bill was an inappropriate state involvement with the church, the Courant said.

Rep. Michael Lawlor and Sen. Andrew McDonald had introduced the plan after concerns from Catholic constituents about the balance of power between the laity and the church leadership.

"Catholic lay people provide all the funds for the running of the parish, but they have absolutely no executive authority for how those dollars are spent," Paul Lakelan, director for the Center of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University told the Courant. "That's a situation that increasing numbers of people are unhappy with."

A push to reform the governance of the Catholic Church has been a long-time struggle for many Catholics.

"I love the church, but there is a need for reforms," John Lucarelli told the Courant. Lucarelli is a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Greenwich, Conn., where a former pastor was forced to resign after an audit showed $400,000 of the diocese's funds were missing and that he kept two bank accounts a secret.

Lucarelli, who is also active with a group called Catholics for Better Governance, said he tried to convince church leadership to reform itself, but it never happened.

"You keep banging your head against the wall, but you've got to stop and try a new tack," he said.

Church leaders were predictably upset at the possible state intervention into church affairs, and they tried to deflect attention from church financial scandals by bringing up bogus charges of government censorship. Bridgeport Bishop William Lori, on his blog, said this bill was "a thinly veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on important issues of day, such as same-sex marriage."

That's absurd. The proposed legislation, however misguided, was intended to prevent clerical misuse of church funds. It had nothing to do with the hierarchy's ability to speak out on public issues.

Why couldn't the bishop stick to the legitimate constitutional issue at hand?

State officials can — and often do — prosecute misuse of non-profit funds for personal gain. If Connecticut laws preventing this kind of fraud are inadequate, perhaps the legislature should tighten them up.

But that's quite different from a gross governmental intervention into the internal structure of a church. The Constitution simply doesn't permit that kind of entanglement between religion and government. Moves to reform churches must come from inside them, not from elected officials.

Said Bishop Lori, "It is time for us to stop this unbridled use of governmental power. It is time for us to defend our First Amendment rights."

We say amen to that, Bishop! Now, if only Lori could remember the First Amendment rights of those of us who do not want abortion and same-sex marriage laws to be decided based on church doctrine! That's just as much of a church-state separation concern as this unconstitutional bill.


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