Catholics protest Connecticut church finance bill

HARTFORD, Connecticut Wed Mar 11, 2009 6:39pm EDT

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HARTFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Thousands of Roman Catholics demonstrated in Connecticut on Wednesday against a state government proposal to shift control of parish finances to lay officials from priests and bishops.

Lawmakers effectively killed the legislation on Tuesday but nearly 4,000 Catholics still held a protest at the gold-domed state Capitol to express opposition to what they said was a threat to the separation of church and state.

"Religious freedom holds a privileged place in American society," said the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, who runs Fairfield University's Center for Faith and Public Life. "You tamper with that religious freedom at your own political peril."

Ryscavage was speaking at a hearing with state Republicans on Wednesday, a day after the Democratic backers of the bill agreed to kill it in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, at least for the rest of this year.

The bill was crafted after the former pastor of St. John's Roman Catholic Church in the town of Darien pleaded guilty in September 2007 to stealing more than $1 million from the church and sentenced to more than three years in federal prison.

Known as "1098," the bill would have taken financial oversight of the state's Catholic churches away from priests and bishops and handed that power to a board of directors made up of lay parishioners.

Critics, including the state's governor, said it would set a dangerous precedent by violating the separation of church and state enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

It comes at a difficult time for Catholics in the U.S. Northeast. Facing dwindling congregations, shifting demographics and a drain on cash from settling sexual abuse lawsuits, many churches face big strains on their finances and have been forced to close across the region.

Andrew McDonald, a Democratic state senator who co-chairs the Legislature's Judiciary Committee and backed the proposal, said the idea originated with a group of Catholic parishioners following the financial scandal in Darien.

A public hearing on the bill with Democratic and Republican lawmakers had been scheduled for Wednesday but was scrapped following indications of widespread opposition.

"A lot of misinformation has been spread about this proposal, and we ourselves are still learning exactly what its impact would be," McDonald said in a statement with Judiciary Committee co-chair, Democratic state Representative Michael Lawlor.

"We are keeping an open mind to what these parishioners have to say about their church," the statement added.

Connecticut's Republican governor, Jodi Rell, said the proposal "was blatantly unconstitutional, insensitive and inappropriate."

(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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