Bishop William E. Lori
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport in Connecticut has filed a federal lawsuit following assertions by a state official that rallying church members at the Capitol in Hartford constitutes a violation of lobbying law.
Six weeks after 4,000 Catholics in Connecticut rallied in opposition to a proposed state law known as Bill 1098, which dictated local parishes reorganize their governing structures to substitute lay leaders for priests in oversight of finances , the Diocese of Bridgeport received a letter from Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics informing it that an investigation was under way to ascertain if the diocese had violated state law by failing to register as a lobbyist organization.
“Following the surprise introduction of Bill 1098,” said Diocese Bishop William E. Lori in a statement, “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. How can this possibly be called lobbying?”
Nonetheless, the lawsuit states, in a meeting with church representatives one month following the investigation letter, the ethics enforcement officer of the state OSE, Thomas K. Jones, told church representatives that the rally in Hartford and statements on the diocese website constituted a sufficient basis to file a complaint.
Consequently, a complaint from Jones could lead to imposition of a $10,000 fine and even possible criminal charges against the diocese. Furthermore, to become a registered lobbyist, the diocese would have to comply with reporting requirements, submit to audits and wear badges at the Capitol.
The lawsuit filed by the diocese in U.S. District Court last week contends 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 sent to diocese churches over the weekend to be read at services, 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.”
He concluded the letter by calling for church members to contact state legislators this week “to discuss why state lobbying laws, which are designed to protect the integrity of the legislative process and monitor and control backroom manipulation of that process, are now being used to stifle our freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly.”
According to the lawsuit, Jones contends the diocese acted as a lobbyist organization in two ways: first, by listing the actual bill number of RB 1098 and second, by spending in excess of $2,000 – an amount established by Connecticut lobbying laws – to bus Catholics to the Capitol.
Carol Carson, the executive director of OSE, has declined to make comments to the press, citing the pending litigation.
Both the diocese and the state, however, have drawn criticism from others willing to comment.
Kim Harrison, a lobbyist for the United Church of Christ, told the Hartford Courant that religious organizations are “just like any other group, and we have to abide by the rules of the state of Connecticut.”
Alan Neigher, an attorney and First Amendment expert, on the other hand, 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.”