Connecticut Fight a Lesson for Religious Freedom Campaign

Article excerpt

In April, the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty released the document "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," which calls attention to a host of recent threats to religious freedom. One of the items mentioned was a 2009 effort in Connecticut to rewrite the laws by which Catholic churches are incorporated under state law. The bishops, and all Catholics, are well-advised to examine the kerfuffle in Connecticut in 2009, but not necessarily for the reasons Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, head of the ad hoc committee and, in 2009, bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., suggests.

In 2009, two state legislators announced their intention to re-examine the incorporation laws for churches in the state of Connecticut. "For reasons that are unclear," Connecticut has "laws on the books singling out particular religions and treating them differently from other religions in our statutes," State Sen. Andrew McDonald and State Rep. Michael Lawlor said at the time. "That doesn't seem right. In fact, many of our existing corporate laws dealing with religious groups appear to us to be unconstitutional under the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."

McDonald, who has since left the legislature, also indicated that he was responding to concerns raised by constituents in his district: Parish priests in Stamford and Greenwich, both in Lori's diocese, had absconded with hundreds of thousands of dollars from church coffers and parishioners wanted to know what could be done about it.

Lori tends not to mention that complicating factor when narrating the 2009 events.

McDonald and Lawlor drafted a proposal that would more closely approximate Connecticut incorporation statutes from the 19th century, statutes that provided for significant lay oversight of church finances. McDonald and Lawlor conceded that their proposal was likely unconstitutional, but they argued that any special treatment of different religious organizations was likely unconstitutional.

There was widespread sentiment in the legislature that the proposals would not go anywhere; State Sen. Andrew Maynard, who disagreed with the proposal, told NCR, "If you want to give your money to an organization with no meaningful oversight, that's your business, and you can't expect the legislature to save you." Still, a hearing was scheduled before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Connecticut Catholic Conference, with Lori in the lead, organized one of the largest protests in the history of the state. The state capitol building 1 was "flooded" with people, Maynard said. He received hundreds of emails and phone calls. The activism "left a bad taste in our mouths," Maynard recalled.

In six years in the legislature, Maynard said, the Connecticut Catholic Conference has never personally lobbied him on any social justice issue. "They send letters" about helping the poor, he said. "It would be nice if the Catholic Conference showed up at the Appropriations Committee where we are trying to do what we were taught is the work of the Gospels."

The proposed rewrite of the incorporation statues never had a hearing and, in fact, the Catholic rally on the capital steps occurred after the legislation was withdrawn.

There are two narratives about the 2009 struggle and they are not mutually exclusive. "It was frivolous," said Paul Lakeland of Jesuit-run Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. "I don't think [McDonald] ever thought it would go anywhere."

But it was also payback. The Catholic church had been prominent in the effort to defeat same-sex marriage in the state legislature and McDonald is openly gay. "The bishops had played so dirty in the same-sex marriage debate," Lakeland said. One legislator told NCR the debate had become "highly personal" between Lori and McDonald. In his public statements about the incorporation rewrite, Lori consistently mentioned McDonald and Lawlor by name and both men received death threats. …