Christine Stuart file photo
St. Peter’s in Hartford (Christine Stuart file photo)

The state’s Catholic bishops rallied in opposition Sunday to a Judiciary Committee bill that would put a board of elected lay persons in charge of each Connecticut parish’s finances.

Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, introduced the bill at the request of members of St. John Church in Darien, where its former pastor, the Rev. Michael Jude Fay, was convicted of stealing $1.4 million from parishioners over several years.

The state’s bishops on Sunday urged parishioners to fight the proposed bill.

In a telephone interview Monday, Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said it was the Catholic Church that brought the situation involving the Rev. Fay to the attention of law enforcement.

Culhane said he doesn’t understand why the proposed bill specifically targets the Catholic Church and not the organizational charts of all the other denominations. He said that under Canon Law each parish in the state already has a finance committee of lay persons which examine and sign off on a parish’s budget.

“The bill on its face is unconstitutional,” Culhane said, adding that it also is “discriminatory and anti-Catholic.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., condemned the bill and questioned whether any such law could survive constitutional challenges. Cafero said his office has been “swamped’’ with calls and e-mail from constituents throughout the state who are outraged by the proposal.

“To say that people are outraged over this proposal to bar the Catholic Church from overseeing its own finances is being charitable,” Cafero said in a written statement Monday afternoon. “This bill has provoked a lot of people.’‘

Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy also issued a statement saying, “Whether you are Catholic or not, it is frightening that the Democratic leadership believes that the state knows best when it comes to running churches in Connecticut. Every citizen of Connecticut, no matter what faith, should be concerned by this legislation.”

In a statement published on the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Web site, Bishop Henry Mansell cited the First Amendment in opposition to the bill.

“This bill violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Mansell wrote. “It forces a radical reorganization of the legal, financial, and administrative structure of our parishes. This is contrary to the Apostolic nature of the Catholic Church because it disconnects parishes from their Pastors and their Bishop. Parishes would be run by boards from which Pastors and the Archbishop would be effectively excluded.”

Mansell also encouraged Catholic parishioners to visit the Capitol Wednesday, March 11, to attend a public hearing on the bill, which again pits the Catholic Church against the chairmen of the Judiciary Committee. The church has butted heads with the committee co-chairmen over same-sex marriage, but that issue ultimately was decided by the state Supreme Court rather than the legislature.

However, McDonald and Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, don’t quite see it as only the two of them against the Catholic Church, since they say it was Catholic parishioners who urged them to draft the proposed law in favor fiscal oversight.

“It has been incorrectly characterized that this legislation originated from the two of us as an attack on the church and freedom of religion,” Lawlor and McDonald said in this statement released Monday morning.

“We are keeping an open mind to what these parishioners have to say about their church, and we respectfully ask that others give them the courtesy of listening to their proposed changes in the existing state law governing Roman Catholic corporations,” the statement says. “We ourselves are questioning certain aspects of their proposal and even the constitutionality of the current law.”

This link contains the state laws governing religious corporations, which includes individual provisions relating to the Protestant Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church of America, and the Roman Catholic Church.