Catholic Bill Controversy Lingers

By Ken Dixon
Connecticut Post
March 19, 2009

HARTFORD -- The controversy over a bill that would have changed the way Roman Catholic parish finances are handled lingered Thursday when minority Republican lawmakers attacked the Democratic chairmen who introduced the bill.

During a meeting to officially kill legislation, including the bill that brought thousands of Catholics to protest last week, the chairmen -- Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven -- warned that the General Assembly is in danger of stifling research and debate.

"We hear all sorts of issues that are sometimes great but just too controversial to vote on, some aren't ready for prime time, some that don't have money for them," McDonald said. "I suspect that people on this committee would be very angry if the co-chairs only allowed issues that we support or in our opinion have no constitutional concerns."

Lawlor, during a morning meeting that turned into a litany of criticism against committee leaders, said he believes that current state law on the church boards may be unconstitutional and lawmakers should find out more about the law.

The issue was sidetracked last week amid the statewide criticism, and Lawlor said one of the reasons to cancel the March 11 public hearing was the result of physical threats made against him and McDonald.

On Wednesday night, Capitol Police announced the arrest of a 26-year-old New Britain man, Timothy Kane, for alleged harassment of the lawmakers via e-mail.

Kane posted a $500 cash bond, pending arraignment in Hartford Superior Court on next Friday. The e-mail was allegedly sent to McDonald and Lawlor on Tuesday night, March 10.

Southwestern Connecticut lawmakers criticized the way the chairmen handled the issue last week, including Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby; Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe; and Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury.

Klarides called it "offensive" that the bill was listed under a title that had to do with corporate forms and that Republicans weren't given more notice. "It's not about the substance of this bill," she said. "It's how we got there."

Klarides said. "I think the first thing you can assume is that if there's something to do with religion it's going to be controversial for people who believe in it and for people who don't believe in it." About 3,500 Catholic convened on the Capitol last week to protest the bill.

"When I first heard about this, it seemed like a pretty technical corporate-law issue," Lawlor said.

"I didn't know we had a religious corporations act," Lawlor said. "When I first saw that it related only to the Roman Catholic Church, I said that that's odd, but then I found out that we had a special statute already on the books that already had the Legislature telling the Catholic Church how to do their business."

He said "some people jumped to some conclusions that were not warranted by the facts at all."

If the March 11 public hearing had not been canceled in the uproar, lawmakers would have had more information about the whole issue, he said.

Hovey said that, as a non-lawyer, the issue has pushed her to become more interested in the issue, including the current state statutes.

McLachlan said he received 1,600 e-mails on the bill, which would have created a mechanism for lay members of congregations to be elected to church boards.

"It seems to me that this likely should have risen to the chairs, that it truly was controversial, and you would have acted as the buffers to sit on something that wasn't going to work, wasn't going to fly, would never stand up to any argument of even a first-year law student about the constitutionality of such a proposal," McLachlan said.

"I actually think that the underlying law is unconstitutional, forget about the changes to it," Lawlor responded.

"Just because a particular religion wants particular corporate laws, doesn't make them constitutional," McDonald said. "If the Judiciary Committee is barred from ever considering any legislation that implicates constitutional concerns, I suspect our work is going to be cut down dramatically." Rowe, another member of the committee, said Lawlor's explanation about the origins and status of the bill have been consistent.

"Certainly mistakes were made, and it's not the Judiciary Committee's finest moments," Rowe said, adding that most lawmakers try to help constituents, as was the case with the church-incorporation proposal, called Senate Bill 1098.

"When we're confronted with ideas that are clearly unconstitutional and clearly offensive, as was 1098 on both levels, we have an obligation to neither raise nor have them draft it," Rowe said. He said Lawlor and McDonald weren't forthcoming with the details of the bill.


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