Christine Stuart file photo
Bridgeport Bishop William Lori (Christine Stuart file photo)

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport filed a federal lawsuit against two state ethics officials Friday after the officials told the church it needs to register as a lobbyist to hold rallies at the state Capitol and use its Web site to oppose legislation.

The lawsuit claims that the diocese was compelled to “oppose unconstitutional legislation that struck at its right of religious self-governance,” when it undertook the action the state officials deemed to be lobbying.

The two defendants, Thomas Jones and Carol Carson, from the Office of State Ethics were unable to be reached for comment Friday evening.

The legislation, which drew the church’s ire because it “would have deprived Roman Catholic Bishops and pastors of voting membership on the governing bodies of corporations that control parish property in Connecticut,” was withdrawn before even receiving a public hearing, but heightened tension between the church and the state. 

Six weeks after the diocese bused thousands in for a rally on the steps of the state Capitol, it was contacted by Jones who informed it that he was conducting an evaluation to ascertain whether the diocese had violated Connecticut law by failing to register as a lobbyist. The lawsuit says that Jones also informed the diocese that statements on its Web site regarding a bill related to same-sex marriage may also be construed as lobbying.

The threat of civil penalties against the diocese for participating in the rally and conveying its opposition to legislation on its Web site is “chilling” to the diocese’s constitutional rights, the lawsuit alleges.

However, Rep. Chris Caruso of Bridgeport who is a Catholic and is the former chairman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the church has a right to rally and assemble and the state has the right to regulate it. He said the church can’t have it both ways.

“If you want to come up and lobby, then you have to be held accountable,” Caruso said. “Give unto Caesar, what is Caesar’s.”

According to the lawsuit Jones sought to find out how much it cost to bus the thousands of Catholics to the Capitol March 11 for a rally against the bill which would change how church finances are governed. 

The lawsuit claims that Jones informed the diocese that spending over $2,000 would require it to register as a lobbyist. While Jones conveyed this to the diocese, the lawsuit says he has not referred the matter to the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office for criminal violations of the state’s lobbying statutes, but the diocese “nonetheless faces that possibility.”

The lawsuit is just the latest in friction between the church and the state over a number of issues from same-sex marriage to emergency contraception to the church corporation bill.