Following widespread outrage from Roman Catholics, Connecticut lawmakers have postponed a highly anticipated public hearing over a state law that would dictate how local parishes organize their governing structures.
Critics blasted Connecticut Raised Bill No. 1098, "An Act Modifying Corporate Laws Relating to Certain Religious Corporations," as a blatant attack on constitutional freedom of religion.
"The State has no right to interfere in the internal affairs and structure of the Catholic Church," writes Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport Bishop William Lori on his blog. "This bill is directed only at the Catholic Church but could someday be forced on other denominations. The state has no business controlling religion."
The bill, proposed last week by the co-chairmen of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, would reorganize the internal structure of local parishes to remove priests and bishops from financial oversight to replace them with boards of laypeople.
"The [church] shall have a board of directors consisting of not less than seven nor more than thirteen lay members," the bill states, then assigns all financial oversight to the board, specifies the board's governing duties and even dictates how often the boards shall meet. The bill further mandates that archbishops and bishops not be allowed to vote on the boards.
A public hearing on the controversial bill had been scheduled for tomorrow.
The Hartford Courant, however, reports that Lawlor and McDonald were flooded with thousands of calls from outraged Catholics. An aide told the paper McDonald's inbox had racked up over 3,600 emails by 9:30 a.m. yesterday.
The Catholic News Agency reports Anthony Picarello, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, blasted the the bill as "blatantly unconstitutional," saying it "targets the Catholic Church explicitly and exclusively, and attempts to use the civil law to alter Church governance."
Objections came from outside the Catholic Church as well.
"You cannot tell a church how it can govern itself," said Marc D. Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress in New York. "The church is entitled to govern itself any which way it wants."
Now, the Associated Press reports, Lawlor and McDonald have postponed the hearing until the state's attorney general reports on the constitutionality of Connecticut's religious corporation laws.
McDonald told the Connecticut Post the impetus for the bill was the publicized case of a priest in Darien, Conn., who was convicted of stealing up to $1.4 million from lay donations, demonstrating the need for laypeople to be more involved in their parishes' financial affairs and to be able to hold their leaders accountable.
LifeSiteNews, however, reports critics of the bill have charged Lawlor and McDonald with being adamant advocates of same-sex marriage legislation and trying to punish the church for standing against their agenda.
"This bill," writes Bishop Lori, "is a thinly-veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church on the important issues of the day, such as same-sex marriage."
In a joint statement, Lawlor and McDonald claimed their only agenda in bringing the bill forward was to honor other Catholics concerned about church scandals.
"We are keeping an open mind to what these parishioners have to say about their church, and we respectfully ask that others give them the courtesy of listening to their proposed changes in the existing state law governing Roman Catholic corporations," the legislators wrote. "We ourselves are questioning certain aspects of their proposal and even the constitutionality of the current law. Despite what has been portrayed, we have not endorsed nor are advocating for this proposal."
One such parishioner is Dr. Paul Lakeland, a former Jesuit Priest and Fairfield University Chair of Catholic Studies. Lakeland had been scheduled to testify before the Connecticut General Assembly on behalf of the bill.
"I see absolutely no chance whatsoever of the institutional church making a change in this direction without pressure from somewhere outside the [Catholic] church," Lakeland told the Catholic News Agency. "There's not even the most remote likelihood that the church would adjust in this direction itself. I think this is a way of putting pressure on them to make changes and bringing the issue into a more prominent setting."
Despite the postponement in the public hearing, the Courant reports hundreds of Catholics angry about what they view as the state's inappropriate and unconstitutional incursion into church affairs are still planning on a rally at the Capitol.
"We are pleased that the hearing was postponed, we are concerned that the bill is very much alive," Joseph McAleer, spokesman for the diocese of Bridgeport told the paper. "The troops are mobilized. … We're as committed as ever."