|Catholics Rally at Capitol, Protest Proposal
March 11, 2009
More than 4,000 Catholics from around the state stood in the drizzle on the north lawn of the state Capitol this morning to protest a bill that would have changed the way the church governs itself.
The bill, initially scheduled for a public hearing today before the legislature's judiciary committee, was pulled amid questions over its constitutionality.
But an informal hearing on the bill was called by Republican legislative leaders.
"The co-chairs decided for whatever reason to cancel everything ... but there are an awful lot of folks who feel very passionately about this issue," Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, said. "We don't have the authority to call a formal hearing. But we felt it would be good for those folks who wanted to come down here to express their views."
At that hearing, John Garvey, dean of Boston College's law school, said that the bill as drafted is, indeed, unconstitutional.
"It violates the First Amendment rule that the legislature cannot dictate the structure of church government," Garvey said.
It's also unconstitutional for a second reason: the bill as drafted singles out the Catholic church.
The hearing room was filled to capacity, prompting legislative staff to provide overflow rooms where members of the audience could watch the proceedings on video monitors.
The co-chairmen of the judiciary committee, Rep. Michael Lawlor and Sen. Andrew McDonald, said the committee will await a ruling from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal before deciding whether to proceed in the future.
"We're thankful the bill has been scrapped. We knew it wouldn't pass," said Charlotte Meyers, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in Enfield, who came to the Capitol with a friend. "Our state was founded on principles of religious freedom. We need to stand up to make sure they're preserved."
Stephanie McNally, 17, of Bridgeport, who attends Kolbe Cathedral High School, said she too believes it's important to speak out.
"Every person counts. We think the church and the state need to be kept separate.
"Her friend, Emily Gil, 16, agreed.
"The state and the church are two very different things," Gil said. "Like oil and vinegar, they don't mix."
The bill would have would have created lay councils of seven to 13 people to oversee the finances of local parishes, relegating Catholic pastors and bishops to an advisory role. It quickly became the most contentious issue of the 2009 legislative session.
McDonald said the bill came about after conversations with a constituent seeking a greater role for the laity within the Catholic Church. That constituent, Tom Gallagher of Greenwich, said he was motivated by his love of the church and concern over declining membership, the priest sexual-abuse scandals, parish closings and two cases of financial impropriety at churches in Fairfield County.
Church leaders said they have already instituted a number of measures to increase financial oversight and bristled at the state's efforts to intervene.
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