Catholics Gather at State Capitol to Protest Church Finance Bill

By Daniela Altimari
Hartford Courant
March 12, 2009,0,4434979.story

[with video]

Elvira Manduley fled Castro's Cuba in 1962; she says she knows what it's like to lose religious liberties.

She also knew she had to travel from her home in Woodbury to Hartford Wednesday to join a large gathering of Catholics outside the state Capitol.

With many carrying bright red signs that read simply "Religious Freedom," more than 4,000 Roman Catholics from across the state stood in the drizzle to protest a bill that would have changed the way the church governs itself, a measure seen by many as an assault on the independence of the church.

Even though the bill is effectively dead, at least through the 2009 session, Manduley thought it was important for her voice be heard.

"I'm here because of religious freedom," Manduley said. "I'm afraid we're going to lose it. ... I fear the seed has been planted."

The rally capped a tumultuous three days at the Capitol as the issue quickly became the most contentious of the 2009 legislative session.

The Catholic governance bill, initially scheduled for a public hearing Wednesday before the legislature's judiciary committee, was pulled amid questions about its constitutionality and sharp criticism of judiciary committee co-chairmen Rep.Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen.Andrew McDonald,D-Stamford.

Late Wednesday afternoon McDonald,who brought the issue to the legislature on behalf of several constituents, issued a written statement:

"It is clear to me that my attempt to create a forum for a group of concerned Catholic constituents to discuss their legislative proposals regarding parish corporate finances has offended a group of similarly devout Catholic parishioners.

"I twas never my intent to offend anyone of faith nor to cast negative attention on the many trustworthy and responsible parish corporations.My only goal was to try my best to represent the concerns of my constituents, some of whom were the victims of fraud. "I regret that in my pursuit of their interests I failed to appreciate and invite into the discussion, early on, the views of other equally concerned Catholics."

Even though the bill was pulled, Republican legislative leaders believed the issue merited an unofficial hearing because so many members of the public had expressed concern over the legality of the measure.

At that hearing, John Garvey, dean of Boston College's law school, said 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.He also said the bill is unconstitutional for another reason:As drafted, it singles out the Roman Catholic Church.

The hearing room was filled to capacity, prompting legislative staff to provide overflow rooms where people could watch the proceedings on video monitors.

Lawlor and McDonald did not attend the session.They made the decision to table the bill pending a ruling on its constitutionality from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

"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 created lay councils of seven to 13 people to oversee parish finances, relegating Catholic pastors and bishops to an advisory role.

McDonald said the bill came about after conversations with a constituent seeking a greater role for the laity within the church. Motivated by declining membership, the priest sexual-abuse scandals, parish closings and two cases of financial impropriety at churches in Fairfield County, one of those activists,Tom Gallagher of Greenwich, asked lawmakers to intervene.


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