HARTFORD (CN) – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport sued two state ethics officials on constitutional grounds Friday, claiming the officials said the church needs to register as a lobbyist to hold rallies at the state Capitol and use its Web site to oppose legislation.
The Diocese claims it was compelled to “oppose unconstitutional legislation that struck at its right of religious self-governance,” when it undertook the acts the state officials deemed to be lobbying.
The defendants, Thomas Jones and Carol Carson, from the Office of State Ethics, could not be reached for comment Friday evening.
The legislation that drew the church’s ire because it “would have deprived Roman Catholic Bishops and pastors of voting membership on the governing bodies of corporations that control parish property in Connecticut,” was withdrawn before even receiving a public hearing, but heightened tension between the church and the state.
Six weeks after the Diocese bused thousands in for a rally on the steps of the Capitol, it says, Jones informed it that he was investigating whether it had violated Connecticut law by failing to register as a lobbyist. The Diocese claims that Jones also informed it that statements on its Web site regarding a bill on same-sex marriage may also be construed as lobbying.
The Diocese says the threat of civil penalties for participating in the rally and speaking on legislation chills its constitutional rights.
However, state Rep. Chris Caruso of Bridgeport, a Catholic and the former chairman of the Legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, said Friday that the church has the right to assemble and the state has the right to regulate it. He said the church can’t have it both ways.
“If you want to come up and lobby, then you have to be held accountable,” Caruso said. “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
The Diocese claims Jones sought to find out how much it cost to bus the thousands of Catholics to the Capitol on March 11 for a rally against the bill that would change how church finances are governed.
It claims that Jones informed the Diocese that spending more than $2,000 would require it to register as a lobbyist. The Diocese claims that when Jones informed it of this, he had not referred the matter to the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office for criminal violations of lobbying statutes, but that it “nonetheless faces that possibility.”
The lawsuit is the latest example in Connecticut of friction between the church and the state over issues that include same-sex marriage, emergency contraception and the church governance bill.
The church is represented by Michael Shea.