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(Updated 4:00 p.m.) More than 4,000 Roman Catholics descended on the state Capitol Wednesday to protest a bill that would have changed how the church manages its finances by giving elected laity more power than priests or bishops.

The controversial bill was withdrawn Tuesday as questions about its constitutionality were raised by parishioners, church officials and some lawmakers. An informational hearing on the bill organized by Republican lawmakers and a rally outside the state Capitol went forward Wednesday despite the fact that the bill had been withdrawn.

Christine Stuart photo

“This is different than anything we’ve ever done because it doesn’t further any public purpose,” Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Southport, an opponent of the bill, said. “It’s directly about government interfering with and changing a religion.”

Carl Andersen of the Knights of Columbus called the proposed bill an attack on the Catholic Church. But it’s an attack which is not unprecedented in the state’s history, he said. Connecticut once forbid Catholics from holding public office and purchasing land, he said. “Senate bill 1098 would turn back the clock 150 years.”

It would have a chilling affect on the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech, Andersen said. “We are here today to say that our priests and our bishops should be treated with respect.”

Claire Ann Headley of Brookfield said she can’t believe state lawmakers had the “audacity” to raise such a bill. “As Catholics we have to stand together,” Headley said in between handing out signs saying “Religious Freedom.”

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the bill went way beyond church financing. He said the way it was drafted would have given the board of elected lay persons control over the hiring and firing of priests and the mortgaging of church properties. “It decimates the entire corporate structure of the church,” he said.

At the forum on the bill, John H. Garvey, dean of Boston College Law School and Rev. Richard Ryscavage, director for faith in public life at Fairfield University, said the bill was indeed unconstitutional.

Garvey explained that Great Britain has an established church that is governed by the queen who manages its assets.  He pointed out that America removed itself from such corporate rule centuries ago by forming the United States and forbidding the establishment of a church ruled by the control of the government.

“This bill makes the Catholic church less hierarchical and more congregational,” Garvey said. “But in America this kind of action is unconstitutional.” He said the bill violates the First Amendment rule which states the legislature can not dictate church government. 

“It’s not the role of the state to eradicate the sins of a couple of priests,” Ryscavage said. He hopes the state will move away from what he felt was an “arrogant” piece of legislation.

The proposed bill also only focuses on the Catholic Church. Garvey said that no domination can be preferred over another. Under the current law Catholics should have the same accommodations as other churches, he said.

“The church is happy with the underlying statues,” Ryscavage said.

Church officials said they have instituted a number of measures to increase fiscal accountability and were offended by the state’s efforts to intervene in its finances.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, and Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee said they introduced the legislation at the request of two constituents. Those two constituents asked the lawmakers Tuesday to withdraw the legislation, which they did.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said the Democratic lawmakers made the right decision. In a statement released this afternoon Rell said, “The co-chairs absolutely made the right decision by canceling the public hearing.  This proposal was blatantly unconstitutional, insensitive and inappropriate.”

“It is clear to me that my attempt to create a forum for a group of concerned Catholic constituents to discuss their legislative proposals regarding parish corporate finances has offended a group of similarly devout Catholic parishioners,” McDonald said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“It was never my intent to offend anyone of faith, nor to cast negative attention on the many trustworthy and responsible parish corporations,” he said. “My only goal was to try my best to represent the concerns of my constituents, some of whom were the victims of fraud.”

“I regret that in my pursuit of their interests, I failed to appreciate and invite into the discussion early on the views of other, equally concerned Catholics.”

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s office had not received a request to review the constitutionality of the existing law, but he said he has no reason to believe he won’t receive one.