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Philip Allen Lacovara

New England is sometimes considered the birthplace of religious liberty in America because several of the early colonies were founded by adherents of denominations being persecuted in Europe in the seventeenth century. They saw the isolation of colonies in the new world as a haven to practice their faith.

But only their faith.

The irony of the deeply ingrained popular myth of religious liberty in New England is that most of the New England colonies were effectively closed to other Christian sects, especially Catholics. For generations, these colonies, including Connecticut, forbade public worship by Catholics and outlawed "popish” priests from practicing their ministry within the boundaries of the colonies.

All this supposedly changed when the Founding Fathers at the end of the eighteenth century proposed a series of amendments to the national Constitution guaranteeing various forms of personal liberty. Standing at the head of the list is the First Amendment, which bans Congress (and, by inference, the States as well) from "establishing” religion or "prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Recent developments in the Connecticut legislature, however, brought these issues to the fore in a dramatic confrontation between church and state. At least for a while, the state blinked, and the church won. What was going on?

On a Thursday afternoon in early March, the two co-chairmen of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, a joint committee of the two houses, introduced a bill with the rather vague but ominous title "An act modifying the corporate laws relating to certain religious corporations.” The "certain religious corporations” turned out to be solely the parishes of the Catholic Church in Connecticut. The legislative leaders had given church officials no notice of this initiative, and they scheduled it for a hearing the following Wednesday before the judiciary committee, which they thought that they controlled.

Behind the seemingly innocuous title addressing "corporate laws” relating to the church were truly breathtaking proposals. The goal was to force the restructuring of Catholic parishes to transform them into Catholic parallels to Congregationalist communities of the traditional New England design. Instead of having the pastor supervise all of the affairs of the parish, subject to the direction and control of the local ordinary, the bill would have transferred control of each parish to a "board of directors consisting of not less than seven nor more than thirteen lay members.” The lay board of directors was to be elected annually by the congregation.

Displacing the current corporate structure in which the local bishop effectively appoints and controls the corporate boards of individual parishes, which consist of the bishop, the vicar general and the pastor along with two lay persons selected by the church officials, the new structure would relegate the bishop to non-voting ex officio membership on the board. Not only would the pastor no longer even be a member of the board of his own parish, he would instead report to the lay board.

The bill purported to focus on reassigning primarily the "general administrative and financial powers” of the parish to the lay board and asserted that it was not to "derogate” from the responsibility of the bishop and the pastor "in matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices.” The bill reflected a crabbed view of what would have been left to the bishop and pastor, however, for it gave the lay board ultimate authority over, among other activities, "developing and implementing strategic plans and capital projects” and "developing outreach programs and other services to be provided to the community.” Thus, the bishop and the pastor would be stripped of their authority to establish and direct the work of the church in the world and their role would be restricted to doctrine and ritual.

The Church and the Connecticut Legislature

As with virtually any assault on the traditional role of the clergy in the Catholic Church, the back story illuminates the issues that otherwise may be obscure. As it happens, the two co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee have taken offense at several of the church's teachings on moral questions, particularly issues dealing with gay rights. The Connecticut legislative leaders have clashed with church officials on their efforts to broaden the rights of gays and lesbians. For example, the church actively (and unsuccessfully) opposed a "civil union” bill that the legislature adopted. Despite a substantial Catholic population, Connecticut now is one of the few states to create even a right to "gay marriage.” (Massachusetts and California are the others, but California voters in November adopted a state constitutional overturning that policy).

The church also lost the legislative battle over the "morning after” pill, which most church leaders view as the equivalent of an early-term abortifacient. Over church opposition, the Connecticut legislature required all hospitals in the state, including Catholic hospitals and Catholic health care workers, to inform rape victims of the availability of this treatment and to provide the therapy, if requested, regardless of conscientious scruples forbidding cooperation with this perceived moral evil. Also on the legislative drawing boards are measures encouraging stem cell research using embryonic stems cells and creating a right to "death with dignity,” the clever euphemism for assisted suicide.

In a practical sense, the church has found itself in a weak political position to resist socially "progressive” measures like these. The loss of political clout resulted from twin factors for which church leaders themselves were at least partly responsible. The first is the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Even faithful Catholics, including those in elective office, share the wide perception that many church leaders failed to act early enough or aggressively enough to protect the young and vulnerable from clerical predators. Even the newer cadre of bishops must labor under the loss of moral credibility resulting from the carelessness or naiveté of their predecessors. It has become politically easy for proponents of policies that offend important church principles to nullify church statements on moral issues by countering that the hierarchy forfeited its right to the moral high ground.

Nowhere was this self-inflicted wound of greater impact than in another struggle that the church leadership lost before the Connecticut legislature a few years ago. Led by some of the same elements behind the parish restructuring bill, the legislature brushed aside objections to enlarging the statute of limitations in cases involving sexual abuse of minors. In all states, there are time limits that prevent an allegedly aggrieved person from filing a law suit more than a few years after the misconduct (if any) occurred. These periods are sometimes as short as one year, and more typically two or three years, and rarely as long as six years.

In the midst of the abuse scandal, however, with the church rocked back on its heels, Connecticut decide to allow a claimant to start a law suit any time within thirty years after the claimant reaches the age of majority (now age eighteen). This measure reopened the capacity of claimants to file lawsuits seeking millions of dollars that had been time-barred for decades. The new measure cost the church in Connecticut-and thus the faithful-tens of millions of dollars to resolve the new round of claims. Many of these newly resurrected claims related to incidents that allegedly occurred more than thirty years earlier and that involved priests who were long dead and thus unable to defend their reputations or to assist their dioceses in resisting financial accountability for the alleged misdeeds.