(March 10, 2009) - A First Amendment storm is brewing in the Constitution State. Without any consultation with its bishops, a bill under consideration in Connecticut's Judiciary Committee threatens to forcefully reorganize the Catholic Church, taking authority away from pastors and bishops and placing governing decisions in the hands of boards of directors from which clergy would be excluded. The Judiciary Committee, co-chaired by State Senator Andrew McDonald and Assemblyman Michael Lawlor, will hear evidence on Raised Bill No. 1098 on Wednesday. The bill would revise current governance provisions applicable to the Catholic Church in Connecticut. If passed, it would strip a bishop of control of his diocese. "I think that (this bill) would be very problematic under the First Amendment," Erwin Chemerinsky told Headline Bistro. Chemerinksy is one of the nation's foremost authorities on First Amendment law and dean of the Law School at University of California Irvine. Chemerinsky said the law is problematic "partly because it targets one religion and partly because it enmeshes the legislature in the workings of a particular religion." Catholic reaction to the bill has been swift as well. In the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Diocese of Bridgeport, statements were read from every pulpit last Sunday by Archbishop Henry Mansell and Bishop William Lori respectively. Calling the bill "irrational, unlawful and bigoted" and a blatant violation of the First Amendment, Bishop Lori's statement hit back hard. "This bill, moreover, is a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day," Lori said, pointing out that no other religious organization is targeted by the measure. "The State has no right to interfere in the internal affairs and structure of the Catholic Church." Mansell called on each parish in his diocese to send a delegation to the bill's public hearing in Hartford on Wednesday. The laity has been equally appalled. Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, founded and headquartered in New Haven, Conn., called the bill a throwback to the extreme anti-Catholicism that pervaded America's early history.
"Whatever their reasons for introducing this bill, there is no doubt that these Connecticut politicians find themselves not only on the wrong side of the First Amendment, but on the wrong side of history, as well," Anderson wrote in an op-ed in the Stamford Advocate Tuesday. Background for the bill The New Haven Register quoted Assemblyman and Judiciary Committee co-chair Mike Lawlor as saying he was approached by "very devout Catholic" constituents asking for greater transparency in terms of diocesan funds. Misappropriation of parish funds is rare. But in 2007 a priest from the Diocese of Bridgeport pleaded guilty to defrauding his parish of over $1 million. That same year, a Greenwich priest resigned after an audit found $500,000 in unaccounted for spending. The diocese responded by implementing safeguards and launching thorough investigations and financial audits. "The pastors of our diocese are doing an exemplary job of sound stewardship and financial accountability, in full cooperation with their parishioners," Bridgeport Bishop Lori said in his statement. "For the State Legislature - which has not reversed a $1 billion deficit in this fiscal year - to try to manage the Catholic Church makes no sense." Doctrinal differences also seem to have a role in the current controversy as well. Reports from newspapers and blogs link the bill's origins to a lay group with a history of challenging the Church's structure. The New Haven Register credits Connecticut attorney Thomas Gallagher as spearheading the bill, and an article by an officer of the dissident Catholic group Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport stated that Gallagher had been in dialogue with legislators on this issue since 2007. The article's author, James O'Callaghan, encouraged the group's members early on to "lend their support" to this effort of overhauling current regulations on religious corporations. Among the stated purposes of Voice of the Faithful is to "shape structural change within the Catholic Church." In 2002, the same year the group was formed, Bishop Lori banned Voice of the Faithful from meeting on Church property in his diocese. While he has "consistently supported greater involvement of the laity in the activities of the Church," the bishop said he could not condone a movement that rejected core Catholic teachings on issues such as sexual morality, celibacy "and a view of conscience contrary to the traditions of the Church." First Amendment scholars take exception In addition to Chemerinksy, many other Constitutional law experts have expressed shock at the proposed law. In a letter to Connecticut's Judiciary Committee, Philip Lacovara, who has taught law at Columbia and Georgetown and is now senior counsel at the law firm of Mayer Brown, wrote that even his first year law students would have "little difficulty seeing why the bill goes well beyond the powers that the Constitution allows the States to exercise in dealing with organized churches." Kevin Hasson, president of the interfaith Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, likewise issued a stinging statement against the bill, which he called "truly a monstrosity." "It would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment even if it applied to all churches," he said. "But the fact that it applies to only one church - the Catholic Church - makes it unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment besides." Legislators have also expressed shock at the bill. Republican State Senator Michael McLachlan was outspoken in his blog. "I pray fervently that we can dispense with this brutal attack on the Roman Catholic Church very quickly," he wrote. "Catholics don't deserve this attack and the proponents of this bill will hopefully hear this message loud and clear." Trusteeism The Church has been the target of such laws before - albeit over 150 years ago. The concept of lay "trusteeism" was a persistent problem for the Church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as some American Catholics - influenced by Protestant congregationalism and aided by groups like the "Know-Nothings" - tried to take control of Church structure. The Know-Nothing party specifically tried to lessen the influence of the Church using "trusteeism." They actually succeeded at times - passing the Putnam Bill in New York, for example, in 1855. Overtly anti-Catholic in its purpose, that bill - similar in content to the bill being considered in Connecticut - remained on the books until the need for Union Army recruits from the Catholic population forced New York legislators to think better of it in 1863. At its worst, trusteeism caused riots and sent some parishes into schism, as trustees asserted their authority over a parish's temporal matters - often with implications for spiritual matters as well.Experts warn the religious consequences would be profound today as well. "Make no mistake, the effect of such a law - if enforced - would be the balkanization of the Catholic Church. Our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church would no longer be apostolic, with bishops losing the say in the administration of their dioceses," Anderson wrote in his op-ed. "Rather than 'one' and 'catholic' our Church could become many and inconsistent as trustees forced their version of theology on a parish under the very real threat of confiscation if their ideology were resisted," he added. Msgr. Francis Weber holds a PhD in Church History and serves as archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He told Headline Bistro that the trusteeism being proposed in Connecticut is "even worse than the normal kind" because it totally excludes priests and bishops from even voting. Historically, Weber said, "the Church has had all kinds of trouble" with the trustee system. In terms of the current law under consideration, Weber was clear: "This is a takeover," he said. Both Bishop Lori and Archbishop Mansell noted in their statements that the bill is "contrary to the Apostolic nature" of the Church by disconnecting parishes from their priests and bishop. Bishops provide the unifying charter of an apostolic church, and assure doctrinal consistency. Unlike some Protestant denominations where congregations influence doctrine, "Ours is a doctrinal Church," Weber said. "We don't have doctrine up for grabs."
(This article appears in today's edition of Headline Bistro, the Knights of Columbus news service for anyone who wants to be well-informed on daily news of special importance to Catholics.)
(Additional information on this issue can be found at the Supreme Council website.)
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson will be a guest on the Glenn Beck show on the Fox News Channel this afternoon at approximately 5:40 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. He will talk about religious freedom and the controversy surrounding Bill 1098, which would strip bishops and priests of Connecticut from all administrative authority over their parishes