HARTFORD, Conn. — A Connecticut state bill attacking the structure of the Church ignited such a firestorm in early March that the bill was tabled — for now.

The bill would have amended the state’s Religious Corporations Act to require Catholic parishes to have lay councils of seven to 13 people. The councils would oversee the finances of local parishes, giving pastors and bishops an advisory role but no vote.

The law would not restrict bishops and pastors “in matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices,” however. (See editorial, page 8, for examples of Connecticut tampering with religious practices.)

According to news reports, the legislation grew out of the concerns of Greenwich, Conn., attorney Thomas Gallagher and other Connecticut Catholics in the wake of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and a couple of high-profile cases of embezzlement of parish funds.

In a 2007 National Catholic Reporter article, Gallagher proposed parish reform in which lay people have a greater role.

But at a press conference in Hartford March 10, he said the legislation did not match his proposal, since it gave bishops and pastors no voting role on administrative and financial matters.

Paul Lakeland, chairman of the Catholic Studies Institute at Jesuit-run Fairfield University in Connecticut, accompanied Gallagher at the press conference, which took place after the Judiciary Committee hearing was canceled. Both men are affiliated with Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics that formed in the wake of the 2002 clerical sexual abuse revelations.

The cancellation of public hearings by the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee promises to be only the end of round one in a long fight.

The bill has yet to be withdrawn. The bishop of Bridgeport, Bishop William Lori, went as far as saying that the intention of the bill was “to dismantle the Church as best they can.”

Question of Timing

The Church restructuring bill, S.B. 1098, was quietly introduced March 5, and many say the timing was no coincidence. It was introduced just one day before Judiciary Committee hearings on Same-Sex “Marriage” Bill, S.B. 899 — a bill which, if enacted as written, could lead to a mandate requiring Connecticut schools to teach homosexual acts as moral and same-sex “marriage” as normal.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt to silence the Church on important issues of the day, but especially with regard to marriage,” Bishop Lori said.

Despite being given a scant weekend and two working days notice to respond to the bill in public hearings, Connecticut bishops vigorously rose to the challenge.

In a letter read at Sunday Masses throughout the archdiocese, Hartford Archbishop Henry Mansell said, “This bill violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Catholics were rapidly mobilized on an emergency basis to head for Hartford to offer testimony on March 11. Although the Judiciary Committee hearing was canceled, the Church organized a rally outside the state Capitol that drew about 5,000 people.

In an address to school principals in his diocese, Bishop Lori explained, “If this bill were enacted, your bishop would have virtually no relationship with the 87 parishes [in the Diocese of Bridgeport]. They could go off independently. Some of them could break off from the Church, if they wished, and go their own way, as happened, for example, with the Episcopal Church. And the pastors would be figureheads, simply working for a board of trustees.”

“You have to understand how radically this departs from the teaching of the Church and the discipline of the Church and how gravely unconstitutional it is for a state to move in and to try to reorganize the internal structure of a church,” Bishop Lori stated. “It is a grave violation of religious liberty.”

Although the bill specifically targets the Catholic Church, Connecticut Rep. T.R. Rowe noted that once one church is attacked, all churches have “reason to worry” about who might be next. “They’ve chosen the biggest target of all because, unfortunately, quite often, the only bigotry allowed is anti-Catholic bigotry,” said Rowe, a Judiciary Committee member.

‘Incorrectly Characterized’

The proposed legislation received national attention. Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, wrote in an editorial in Stamford’s The Advocate that although its immediate target is the Catholic Church the bill “poses a danger to all religions.”

In a statement “What Happens in Connecticut Matters Here,” Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said, “The legislative coercion directed against the Catholic community in one state has implications for Catholics in every other state. If bigots in one state succeed in coercive laws like S.B. 1098, bigots in other states will try the same.”

Calling S.B. 1098 “imprudent,” “unjust” and “contemptuous of the right of the Catholic Church to be who she is as a public entity,” Archbishop Chaput wrote, “If Catholics want Caesar telling them how they’re allowed to live their civil life as a community, this is exactly the kind of legislation to make it happen.”

Kevin Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty called the bill “truly a monstrosity.”

In a joint press release, the Democratic cochairmen of the Judiciary Committee — same-sex “marriage” advocates Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, — tried to distance themselves from the intense explosion the bill had set off.

“It has been incorrectly characterized that this legislation originated from the two of us as an attack on the Church and freedom of religion,” Lawlor and McDonald stated. “That is not the truth, and the facts do not support such a claim.”

Gallagher told the New Haven Register, “This bill is incredibly respectful of the Catholic faith. This is a pro-priest proposal that spreads the legal responsibility for a parish with lay members rather than putting it on the shoulders of one person [the pastor].”

Its backers say they only wanted to prevent financial mismanagement of parishes, to prevent embezzling of funds, and to make the Church more “accountable.”

But Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, observed that the state already has statutes to handle embezzlers. “This overreaches and is so offensive to the separation of church and state; I’m concerned that there is something a little diabolical about it,” Candelora said.

Bishop Lori pointed out the irony of the state of Connecticut alleging that new laws are necessary because the Church cannot manage her own financial house.

“We have a high degree of accountability and very careful management of our parishes and the diocese as a whole,” Bishop Lori said. “By contrast, the state of Connecticut cannot close in this fiscal year alone a $1 billion deficit. And the story will never be told of the waste and corruption that exists in the government of Connecticut.”

Continuing Challenges

Lawlor and McDonald are contemplating a forum in which the Legislature would look at all religious corporate statutes back to 1866 to see if they’re constitutional.

But Candelora warned, “If those laws are repealed, the Catholic Church in Connecticut would not have the ability to exist under a corporate structure.”

“Quite frankly, examining those statutes for their constitutionality is not a role for the Legislature,” Candelora said. “So now we’ve gone from interfering with free exercise of religion to trying to take up the role of the judicial branch.”

According to constitutional attorney Philip Lacovara, who served as counsel to the Watergate special prosecutor and has argued 18 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, “Politically, the Legislature is not going to repeal all of these statutes, because there are simply too many churches and denominations that have relied on them over more than a century to organize their civil affairs (for example, acquiring property and transferring real estate, entering into contracts, etc.).”

Lacovara added, “The original counter-attack that I heard discussed — just repealing the statutes applicable to the Catholic Church — would be unconstitutional and on its face discriminatory.”

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal declined to discuss his views on state laws pertaining to the Church. But his media spokesperson referred the Register to a story in which Blumenthal was quoted as saying he had his doubts about the constitutional propriety of the existing “framework” of laws that govern the incorporation of Catholic organizations and date back to the mid-1800s. That’s when the bishop of Hartford and parishes were given the legal right to incorporate.

Bishop Lori said that Catholics should “recognize that bills like this come up again and again and again. So we should really proceed to put into place all the protections that we can.”

The Church’s battles in Connecticut are far from over. The Same-Sex “Marriage” Bill, which would codify the state Supreme Court ruling last year allowing same-sex “marriage,” continues to lurk mostly under the public’s radar. “Our opponents are master strategists,” said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut. “They’re really good at knowing how to distract an opponent. I think that’s at least part of what’s going on here.”

Sue Ellin Browder is based

in Willits, California.