By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The state of Connecticut is accusing the Diocese of Bridgeport of violating lobbying laws for encouraging parishioners to attend a rally at the Capital in Hartford to show their opposition for a state law. If convicted, the diocese could face a fine of $10,000 or possible criminal charges.
According to a report appearing on WorldNetDaily.com, 4,000 Catholics gathered at the Capital a few months ago to protest Bill 1098, a law that would have forced parishes to reorganize their governing structures to substitute lay leaders for priests in oversight of finances. Six weeks after the ill-fated bill was dismissed, the diocese received a letter from the Office of State Ethics (OSE) informing them that an investigation of the rally was underway to determine if the diocese violated state law by failing to register as a lobbyist organization.
“How can this possibly be called lobbying?” asked Bishop William E. Lori in a statement. “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 Capital.”
However, Thomas K. Jones, the ethics enforcement officer of the OSE, told church representatives that the rally in Hartford and statements contained on the diocesan website constituted a sufficient basis to file a complaint. He claims the diocese acted as a lobbyist by listing the actual bill number of RB 1098 and second, by spending in excess of $2,000 to bus Catholics to the Capital.
If convicted, the diocese would not only be fined and/or subjected to criminal charges, they would also have to become a registered lobbyist and comply with reporting requirements, submit to audits and wear badges at the Capital.
The diocese responded by filing their own lawsuit in U.S. District Court last week contending that Jones’ actions result in a direct “chilling” effect on the church’s First Amendment rights.
“(Jones’) application of the state lobbying laws is pressuring the (diocese), which from time to time is compelled by its faith to take stands on legislation, to tailor its communications and scale back its religious mission to avoid being treated as a ‘lobbyist,'” the lawsuit states.
In a letter read in all diocesan churches over the weekend, Bishop Lori made an even stronger argument.
“This new action cannot be seen as anything other than an attempt to muzzle the church and subject our right of free speech to government review and regulation,” Lori wrote. “This government action tramples on the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and religion, and should shock the conscience of all citizens of the Constitution State.”
Alan Neigher, an attorney and First Amendment expert, questioned the OCE’s actions.
“There’s a difference between petitioning as a citizen and lobbying as a lobbyist and I don’t blame the diocese one bit for going after the state,” Neigher told the Courant. “The state seems to be going down a slippery slope here. On its face this seems to be a very, very questionable investigation by the state.”
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