Official says Conn. can’t enforce lobbying law against diocese
HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut's attorney general said on June 30 the state's lobbying laws cannot be used to require the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to register as a lobbyist to hold rallies and use its Web site to oppose legislation.
Richard Blumenthal said the courts would interpret such a move as unconstitutional. He said it would potentially have a chilling effect on free-speech rights, such as rallying and expressing opinions on the Internet, and could be viewed by religious organizations as a threat.
“It intrudes on First Amendment free-expression rights under these circumstances,” Blumenthal said.
He also said the state's lobbying laws, including the definition of lobbying, are vague and lawmakers should clarify or revise them as soon as possible.
In a letter to Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, Blumenthal said the office should abandon an investigation of the church and its activity on March 11, when hundreds of Roman Catholics were bused to the state Capitol to rally against legislation that would have changed the way parishes' finances are handled.
The ethics office had asked Blumenthal to represent it in federal court after the diocese sued the agency to stop what it called an unconstitutional application of state lobbying laws.
Yesterday, the ethics office decided to drop its investigation.
Following a 90-minute executive session conference call yesterday, the agency's ethics enforcement officer said the office would withdraw its request for information from the diocese and close its investigation. The officer, T.J. Jones, said it was “the most appropriate action for the enforcement division to take right now.”
Carson said she was unsure know how Jones' decision would affect the federal lawsuit filed by the diocese to stop what it called an unconstitutional application of state lobbying laws. “We'll have to wait and see,” she said.
The diocese, in a written statement, called the decision to withdraw the probe “welcome news” and that it was looking forward to written confirmation from the ethics office.
“At that time we will make a decision on our lawsuit,” the diocese said.
Blumenthal said the office made the right decision. He said he looked forward to working with ethics officials and the General Assembly to clarify and revise the lobbying laws.
Because of the ongoing litigation, Carson said she could not respond to questions about the initial decision to evaluate whether the diocese violated state lobbying laws and whether the laws need to be changed.
The bill allowing lay people to play a greater role in parish finances was withdrawn by leaders of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee before the rally. It was then officially killed a week after the protest.
The bill opposed by the Catholics would have amended a little-known 1866 state law that sets up rules for religious corporations and societies, allowing lay people to play a greater role in parish finances. It was withdrawn by leaders of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee before the rally and officially killed a week after the protest.
Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori called Blumenthal's June 30 announcement “truly significant” and one that “stands not just with our state's Catholics but with all citizens of the state whose fundamental civil liberties were placed in jeopardy.”
He said it was essential that citizens have the right to organize and communicate their views to their government without being required to register as lobbyists.
The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, also is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a center of the institute. He is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.