A few months ago we looked at the lack of media coverage of an attempt by some Connecticut legislators to replace the Roman Catholic Church's governing structure with a congregational system. Well, the media developed an interest in the story soon enough and the legislators were brushed back by a huge public uproar over the meddling. But the story continues. The diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., transported parishioners to a rally in the state capital to fight that bill. In doing so, the Connecticut office of State Ethics says the diocese acted as a lobbying organization. And there's more:
Officials also are investigating whether the church acted as a lobbying organization on its Web site when it urged parishioners to contact lawmakers about the bill, which eventually was withdrawn amid public outcry, and about a another bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which was signed into law in April.
Now the ethics office is "evaluating" whether the diocese failed to register as a lobbyist — an investigation that Bishop William Lori says violates the diocese's First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.
"I don't know what the motive of the Office of State Ethics was or is, but I do know that their actions stem directly from our attempts to defend ourselves in the face of two pieces of legislation that were unfriendly to the day-to-day mission of the church," Lori told FOXNews.com on Thursday.
"We were simply seeking to fulfill our mission, to continue to be ourselves."
That's from Fox News' Joshua Rhett Miller, who writes up a very informative report. He explains how Connecticut law defines lobbying and the constraints and regulations placed upon lobbying organizations. We get the dueling perspectives here:
Diocese spokesman Joseph McAleer, meanwhile, said "a lot" of churchgoers in the state feel the church has been singled out. The diocese contains 87 parishes and more than 410,000 parishioners.
"People can only assume that people are out to get us," McAleer told FOXNews.com. "It feels like retaliation, that's the feeling amongst the Catholics of Fairfield County. Where is freedom of speech? Where is freedom of assembly? It's mind-boggling."
But [Carol] Carson says the ethics office is just doing its job.
"We're content neutral," the Office of Ethics official told FOXNews.com. "It does not matter to us whether someone is for or against any issue. We're an independent watchdog agency and it's not the case that anyone in state government came to us and said, 'You need to look at this.'
There are arguments to be had on all sides of the issue and there are a ton of stories looking at the Connecticut fight. The fight over how much the state can interfere in a given church body's practices through regulation or other legal mechanisms will never end.
Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner, who covers the regulation beat in his regular column, asked some very good religion-related questions -- particularly for a business and politics reporter:
Registering to lobby is no small matter of filling out a form and paying a fee. Registered lobbyists must, thrice a year plus once a month while the legislature is in session, file detailed reports on all their activities and expenditures related to lobbying. They are also required, whenever lobbying, to wear a badge identifying themselves as lobbyists.
I asked the Office of State Ethics about the ramifications of dubbing the diocese a lobbying organization. Would priests need to fasten "LOBBYIST" badges to their vestments whenever speaking from the pulpit about the death penalty, abortion or future state attempts to micromanage parishes? Who would enforce this? Would the state deploy ethics officers to regulate Masses so that no unauthorized lobbying occurred?
Would the diocese Web nerd need to clock in as a lobbyist for the time it takes him to write, "Tell the Governor to Repeal the Death Penalty" and upload that message to the site? A spokeswoman said, "We really don't have opinions that specifically address those matters."
Hopefully reporters covering this issue will consider and explore all the ramifications of Connecticut's latest battle with the Roman Catholic church there.