Government Should Stay OUT of Church Business

On Wednesday, Catholics from parishes from around the state will descend upon the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building to protest a bill before the Judiciary Committee. In my view, the bill, number 1098, is a modern version of persecution of the Catholic Church.

The bill is specific only to Roman Catholic corporations. Not all corporations. Not all non-profits. Not even all churches. It is written only to affect the Catholic Church. The legislature wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to dictate how a Lions Club, Junior League or local Red Cross chapter should be governed. Why should it interfere with the governance of any church — let alone a single church?

On its face, the “Catholics only” element strikes me as a violation of the Connecticut Constitution, Article I, Section Three, which states, “The exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever be free to all persons in the state.” By pinpointing the Roman Catholic Church, this bill discriminates. Also, by dictating governance policies for the Church, it seems to me this would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Bill of Rights).

The original Connecticut law, which this bill seeks to amend, also pinpointed the Catholic Church. It was the result of the effort in 1855 of Gov. William T. Minor, a member of the anti-Catholic “American Republican” nativist party (otherwise known as the “Know-Nothings”). Even that restrictive law passed muster because it had a provision deferring to canon law. The new proposal overrides Catholic Canon Law.

What is the problem this bill is supposed to remedy? Is it theft of church funds? There already is a remedy — criminal prosecution and prison. There are bad people in every profession — bad priests, bad lawyers, bad hedge fund managers. No priest has ever stolen $50 billion, as Bernie Madoff admits to doing — but I don’t see the legislature saying hedge funds should be governed by a board of stakeholders.

Under its current structure, each Catholic parish is a corporation with five “members” – the Bishop, the Diocese Vicar General, the pastor and two lay members. The parish corporation owns the assets of the parish, including the land, church building, and schools. The parish assets are for the benefit of the parishioners, so that if a parish is closed or consolidated into a new parish, the assets are not sent to the Diocese, but are transferred to the new parish. There is a canon law requirement of a lay parish council and lay finance board. As a past member of both the St. Mary’s parish council, and finance committee, I am aware of the canon law safeguards – and the pitfalls, if the safeguards are ignored. Ignoring such safeguards is an internal church matter, and NOT the province of the government.

Beyond that, I know from first-hand experience that a group of volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned, is not in a better position to manage the day-to-day operations of an organization than those who work full-time for the organization. This bill requires the yearly election of 7 to 13 lay directors, and states that “the pastor of the congregation shall report to the board of directors with respect to administrative and financial matters.”

The bill would emasculate the role of a parish’s pastor and bishop by not allowing them even a vote on the new board. The board would hold the power of the purse-string, and thus ultimate control over each parish and all parish assets, including land and buildings.

Government involvement in the internal affairs of any church is a slippery slope. For example, if this bill becomes law, who is to determine who is a “congregation member” eligible to vote for the lay board? Will the legislature need to establish criteria for one to be a voting church member? If the legislature sets parameters it is perilously close to establishing a religion.

Yet, if anyone can claim to be a member and vote, one can easily foresee corporate raiding — groups, whether for profit or other reasons, taking over parishes – especially land-rich parishes. Think what a huge lot in the middle of Greenwich Avenue (St. Mary) or 32 acres on North Street (St. Michael) is worth. Enough for an unfriendly take-over?

Were this a law a few years ago, what might have happened at St. Agnes – a very tiny parish, when it was considering selling part of its land to the Stanwich School? It would have been an easy feat to “stack the deck” with new parishioners concerned more with property than with their souls. This legislation could lead to the biggest “land grab” since the Russian Revolution!

If the legislature is concerned about misuse of charitable funds, there are less onerous ways to accomplish this without getting into the internal affairs of the Catholic Church. For instance, St. Mary’s has a CPA firm audit its books. The law could require ALL churches – Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and other religions — to be audited by CPAs and make the audit available.