Protecting Freedom Of Religion

March 12, 2009

A crowd of angry people descended on the State Capitol last week to protest an ill-conceived legislative proposal to let the General Assembly dictate how the Roman Catholic Church runs its Connecticut parishes.

It is clear to them – and to thousands more who could not come to Hartford – that Senate Bill 1098, An Act Modifying Corporate Laws Relating To Certain Religious Corporations, is unconstitutional and an assault on religious freedom and, even worse, an attack on one specific religion.

I share their displeasure. Specifically, this proposed legislation calls for replacing financial and administrative control of Roman Catholic churches by Bishops and pastors with that of boards of directors consisting of lay people elected from the parishes. Pastors would retain their religious authority, but would report to their boards of directors with respect to financial and administrative matters. The state Attorney General would be given broad investigatory powers with respect to claims that money contributed to a Roman Catholic Church has been misappropriated.

Keep in mind that Connecticut already has laws on the books to investigate and prosecute fraud and embezzlement. The state’s prosecution of cases involving financial improprieties at churches has been widely publicized. The very idea that Connecticut’s Roman Catholics need the General Assembly to protect them by passing special anti-fraud, anti-embezzlement legislation targeting their parishes is condescending and absurd.

Furthermore, keep in mind that Roman Catholics have the same rights as everyone else in our nation to choose the churches at which they worship. The Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchy, and all facets of its operation are spelled out in Church laws that its members freely obey. The internal operations of individual parishes fall under these Church laws. Clearly, proposed legislation that is intended to rewrite the Roman Catholic Church’s laws with respect to the administration of its parishes in Connecticut is blatantly unconstitutional.

Much has been said about the possible motivation of the legislators who proposed Senate Bill 1098. I understand the temptation to speculate – but, really, it does not matter why some legislators felt the need to write this bill. What does matter is that Connecticut citizens – not all of them Roman Catholic – understand the danger of this proposed legislation and acted swiftly to make their opposition known. What matters is that several state legislators – again, not all of them Roman Catholic – also understand the danger of this proposed legislation and quickly vowed to do everything in their power to make sure that it never becomes law.

Like many Connecticut citizens, I was delighted when the Judiciary Committee’s scheduled public hearing on this proposed legislation was cancelled due to questions about its constitutionality. The day before the scheduled hearing, I stood with many other Republican legislators at a press conference that we called to express our opposition to the bill as an assault on religious freedom.

However, despite assurances that Senate Bill 1098 is dead, at least for now, Connecticut’s Roman Catholic citizens still wanted – and deserved – the opportunity to express their concerns and express their outrage at this unwarranted attack. They travelled to Hartford in buses and cars to rally at the State Capitol, undeterred by the damp, drizzly, weather. Hundreds stayed to speak at the informational forum organized by Republican legislators – and attended by several Democrats – after the Judiciary Committee public hearing was cancelled.

I was impressed and humbled by the eloquence of the people who spoke in defense of their rights as United States citizens to worship as they see fit. I was moved by my fellow Roman Catholic citizens who spoke out for their religion and their parishes. As an American citizen and a state legislator, I am proud to stand with them in opposition to Senate Bill 1098.