In what many believe is a chilling of free speech rights and freedom of religion, Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics (OSE) is attempting to penalize the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport for failing to register as a lobbying organization for urging Catholics on its website to take part in a public rally and providing transportation.

The Office of State Ethics in Connecticut is attempting to force the diocese to register as a lobbying organization where they would be forced to file periodic reports of expenses and submit to ongoing audits by the state.

Executive Director of the OSE Carol Carson, said in an interview with CMR that she could not comment on pending litigation. But she insisted that the Catholic Church was not singled out but was one of 29 different groups that have been contacted by the OSE. She said the reason for the policy is that the people have a right to know “who is spending money on influencing legislative action.”

She said that the limit an organization can spend before being considered a lobbyist is $2,000. “If you lobbied and only spent $1,800 you don’t have to register,” she said.

When asked if she knew for a fact that the Church spent over $2,000 she once again said she couldn’t speak specifically about this case. She did say however that actions by the OSE can be initiated in different ways. “If we open the newspaper and see full page ad it doesn’t matter what they’re saying. Full page ads costs a lot of money.” She said something like that would likely start the process.

But she added that sometimes a complaint comes from a third party. She refused to say how the action against the Church originated.

According to court documents, the complaint against the Church includes its failure to register as a lobbyist under Connecticut General Statutes Section 1-95 before or in connection with:

1. organizing, funding, providing transportation to, or participating in a rally held in front of the Connecticut State Capitol on March 11, 2009 to protest Raised Bill1098;
2. making statements on Plaintiffs website opposing Raised Bill 1098 and Raised Bill 899 and urging viewers of the website to contact legislators to oppose Raised Bill 1098 and Raised Bill 899 and making the expenditures necessary to make such statements;
3. organizing, funding, providing transportation to, or participating in any rallies relating to any legislation in the future; and
4. making statements opposing legislation and urging website viewers to contact legislators to oppose legislation in the future.

In an interview with CMR, Connecticut Republican Party Chair Chris Healy said he sees the actions of the OSE as “an outright prohibition on speech. He said the rules regarding Ethics in the state are “horribly broken.”

When I spoke with Susan A. Fani, Director of Communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, she said she agreed, that the OSE’s actions is nothing short of an attempt by some in Connecticut state government to “try to control the church. There’s an agenda there,” she said. “We have to put them in their place.”

Fani said she believes much of these efforts “ties into the gay agenda” and is an attempt to “intimidate” the Church.

Many believe that the animosity between the Church and the state comes mainly from the Church’s successful attempt to amend Connecticut’s gay marriage legislation to include a “conscience clause” that would prohibit the state from forcing churches to perform gay marriages.

And with that victory, then the Church found itself in the crosshairs of the infamous and anti-Catholic Bill 1098 in March of this year, which proposed forcing local parishes to have lay councils that would oversee finances thus relegating priests and bishops to the sideline.

The bill was nothing short of a government backed coup on the Church. So the Church responded by speaking out and encouraging Catholics and anyone who cared about religious freedom to speak their mind at the public hearing for the bill.

In March, about 4,000 people showed up to protest the bill which was withdrawn hours before the scheduled time for the public hearing.

Bishop William Lori called the addition of the “conscience clause” and the defeat of 1098 “two tremendous victories” for the Church.

But then came the letter from the state saying that because the Church had rallied people to defend itself from government encroachment, the Office of State Ethics said it acted in a way to change legislation and was therefore an illegal lobbying organization.

That’s called a Catch 22. Either the Church had to sit idly by as their abilities to run their own parishes directly was taken away by the government or be labeled a lobbying organization with all the bureaucratic red tape, rules and laws associated with it.

Calls to the diocese went unreturned but in a video available on the diocesan website, Bishop Lori said, “the citizens in Connecticut should be able to speak their minds about the moral issues of the day.”

The diocese has filed suit in federal court fighting the OSE. Fani said that the lawsuit is the only good news to come from the mess. “They’re obviously trying to intimidate the church. But the good news is the church isn’t shutting up.”