Catholic Church lobbyists at the state Capitol try to tinker with Connecticut’s new civil union law. They’re not getting far.
For most in the state Capitol, the civil union controversy ended April 13, when Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the landmark legislation. But for the Catholic Church, the battle still rages.Over the last few weeks, church lobbyists have shopped an amendment at the state Capitol that would exempt church affiliated organizations from paying benefits to same sex partners. They’ve even begun phone banking legislators- state Rep. Michael Lawlor (D-East Haven), a leading civil union proponent, said he received four calls over the past week. However, the church’s efforts do not appear to have translated into momentum, as few legislators appear willing to reopen a subject that engenders lengthy debate so close to the end of the legislative session.For Dr. Marie Hilliard, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, the issue is one of entitlement. The Catholic Church should be protected under the First Amendment from being required to follow policies that undermine its religious teaching, according to Hilliard. By mandating church funds towards same sex partners, via benefits packages, the civil union law infringes on religious freedom, she said. “We’re trying to exercise our right not to de facto recognize civil unions through benefits packages,” Hilliard said.Problem is, the civil union law already exempts religious organizations, Lawlor said. The Judiciary Committee’s co-chairman believes the Catholic Conference is actually pushing much stronger language which the House rejected during the debate on the bill. That language would institute a range of restrictions, and not just at churches- Catholic hospitals may not be required to recognize civil unions on a range of fronts, including visitation rights, Lawlor said.Hilliard disagrees. But she does cite the need to protect the rights of Knights of Columbus halls, for example, to refuse their space to same sex marriages. And to Lawlor, that restriction would be legislating “bigotry.”“This is a pathetic attempt to have another discussion about this bigotry. Now this is pure bigotry,” Lawlor said, “and we don’t want to rent our hall to that.“Asked why Hilliard is still devoting time to civil unions when few want to revisit the issue- and when budgetary events impact the Catholic Church’s mission to help the poor- she said civil unions are not the only issue on which her group is engaged. The Catholic Conference sent out similar alerts on affordable housing and nursing home funding, Hilliard said, and works in concert with broader coalitions on issues like limiting pesticides. But because civil unions are a purely religious issue with high visibility, Hilliard said reporters only ask about that single subject.The issue is worth bringing up again because it is a First Amendment concern, she added.“There is a mindset that civil liberties do not embrace religious liberties,” she says.