Jesus Christ, Registered Lobbyist

Connecticut’s lobbying rules endanger religious freedom

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Into purgatorial fire, the United States District Court of Connecticut must cast one of two souls, the state government or the Catholic Church. The Office of State Ethics accuses the Church of breaking Connecticut’s lobbying rules last spring when the Diocese of Bridgeport protested liberal legislation. Distraught, the diocese seeks clemency and asks the court to prohibit OSE from applying these rules to the Church. To quench this inferno, the state legislature should exempt churches from its lobbying rules—because churchgoers aren’t powerbrokers.

Mercy the bureaucracy denies, for the Church committed a cardinal sin: It didn’t follow procedure. Last March, the diocese spent over $2,000 busing people to a rally in Hartford, where Catholics protested a bill that would have stripped pastors of control over parish finances. In April, the Church again trespassed. On its website, the diocese announced its opposition to a bill that legalized gay marriage and spurred parishioners to “contact your legislator.” OSE christened these three words “lobbying” and warned the diocese against further misbehavior.

Technically, OSE is right. Connecticut law defines lobbying as “communicating directly or soliciting others to communicate with any official…for the purpose of influencing any legislative [action].” A person who spends over $2,000 on “lobbying” per year must register with OSE before he squawks. He also must file financial reports regularly and submit to random audits by OSE. That miscreant who fails to register faces fines worth up to $10,000. In this case, that miscreant was the Church.

But by following the letter of the law, OSE is violating the spirit of the law. Connecticut’s lobbying rules intend to shed light on backroom deals, not public protests. And the five firms that the Church uses to lobby the legislature are already registered with OSE. In its defense, OSE says it wants transparency, but it’s hard to miss 3,500 people standing in front of the state Capitol. The legislature already exempts the media from these rules to protect free speech. It should do the same with churches to preserve religious freedom.

Lobbying rules like these stifle speech of all faiths. Clergy fear voicing their views on legislation if it means opening their books to investigation. OSE says it looks at only the portion of church finances dedicated to lobbying. But to distinguish that portion is impossible. Do we count the homily, the bulletin, the prayer group? State Representative Chris Caruso, an unsympathetic Catholic, chides the Church to “Give unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s.” But the Church’s everyday finances are none of Caesar’s business.

OSE should drop all charges against the Church, and the legislature should revise the rules immediately. We don’t need to register every person marching outside the pearly gates, just the guy trying to slip Saint Peter a few coins. Moreover, it would help both church and state if a court didn’t settle every dispute. Otherwise, we may see the day when the penitent Catholic, at the start of Confession, instead of saying “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” demands, “Bless me Father, or I’ll sue!”

Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.