Can Connecticut Forcibly Order the Church to Reorganize? Is the Church a "Lobbyist" for Opposing Such Interference?

The Connecticut Office of State Ethics (OSE) is poised to investigate and penalize the Diocese of Bridgeport for having the temerity to exercise at least four of the five sections of the First Amendment (religion, speech, assembly, petition).

The story begins earlier this year when Connecticut State Senator Andrew McDonald proposed legislation (S. 1098) that would have forced the Catholic Church, contrary to the church’s doctrine, to relinquish control of parish finances (for those from congregationalist traditions who may not be aware of the organization of Catholic Churches, the Catholic Church, by doctrine, is very hierarchical, with Bishops responsible for all the parishes within the bishopric, and those Bishops reporting on up the line, ultimately to the Vatican.  Unlike most protestant demoninations, local parishes exercise little governing control.  This is not merely an issue of secular control but one of theological doctrine deeply entwined in the Catholic Church’s views on the role of clergy, the papacy and the church in fulfilling God’s mission).  Naturally the church opposed this incursion into its governance and doctrine, with the Bishop urging Catholics to contact their legislators and the Church supporting a mass rally in the state capital.

So the state struck back.  From the American Spectator story by Lisa Fabrizio:

It seems that our Diocese of Bridgeport — which in March was forced to marshal the faithful to defend itself from unconstitutional government interference — was notified by the Connecticut Office of State Ethics that it is under investigation for possible violations of the state’s lobbying laws.

Bishop William Lori sent a letter to the OSE challenging the investigation. He describes the activity that led to the investigation:

Following the surprise introduction of Bill 1098, a proposal that singled out Catholic parishes and would have forced them to reorganize contrary to Church law and the First Amendment, our Diocese responded in the most natural, spontaneous, and frankly, American, of ways: we alerted our membership – in person and through our website; we encouraged them to exercise their free speech by contacting their elected representatives; and, we organized a rally at the State Capitol…

On April 23, 2009, the Diocese received a letter from Thomas K. Jones, Ethics Enforcement Officer for the OSE, stating that it was “the subject of an Office of State Ethics evaluation,” which was “being conducted to ascertain whether the Diocese had violated [Connecticut General Statutes Sections] 1-94, 1-95 and 1-96 by failing to register as a lobbyist in Connecticut, by failing to submit all other appropriate lobbyist filings, and by failing to follow all applicable registration procedures.”

The OSE claims the Diocese acted as a “lobbyist” by: participating in a March 11, 2009, State Capitol rally against Raised Bill 1098 (the unconstitutional attempt to reorganize Catholic parishes contrary to Catholic teaching and tradition); making statements on its website urging its members to contact their elected representatives to oppose Raised Bill 1098; and making statements on its website urging its members to contact their legislators to oppose another bill, Raised Bill 899 (regarding same-sex marriage).

The subtext to all this is that the underlying legislation itself appears to be retaliation for the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage (Sen. McDonald and lead Connecticut House sponsor Rep. Michael Lawler are both gay). 

It’s hard to imagine that in a country with the First Amendment protections we are supposed to enjoy, it should even be a matter of discussion whether it is legal, without government approval in advance, to hold a rally at the Statehouse and encourage fellow citizens to contact their elected officials. Such is the state of “reform” and “ethics” that we do in fact have to have these discussions.

(This post adopted w/ permission from a post by Sean Parnell at the Center for Competitive Politics.