Christine Stuart file photo
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (Christine Stuart file photo)

After being asked to defend them in a federal lawsuit, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal advised officials at the Office of State Ethics Tuesday that they cannot force the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport to register as a lobbyist.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport filed a federal lawsuit against the Office of State Ethics in May after 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.

“Serious constitutional and other legal concerns raised by this lawsuit compel me to conclude that Connecticut’s lobbying registration laws cannot and should not be enforced in this factual situation against the Church,” Blumenthal wrote in this letter to Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics.

“There are serious and significant potential chilling effects on protected First Amendment, free expression rights for any group under these circumstances,” Blumenthal said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Blumenthal concluded that the definition of lobbying is “extraordinarily broad” and “unclear.”

“The question is not whether it applies, but whether enforcement and investigative activity would be stopped by the courts—and rightly so—because it intrudes on First Amendment, free expression rights under these circumstances,” Blumenthal said.

He said the Office of State Ethics asked his office to defend them against the lawsuit.

“I have an obligation to advise as well as defend,” he said. “That kind of court battle can be avoided in my view.”

Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon that she had no comment regarding the letter because the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board will be meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the lawsuit and proposed settlement. Carson said she may be able to comment after the meeting.

The federal lawsuit filed by the church in May 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.

Six weeks after the diocese bused thousands in for a rally on the steps of the state Capitol, it was contacted by Ethics Enforcement Officer Thomas 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 church for participating in the rally and conveying its opposition to legislation on its Web site was “chilling” to church leaders who praised Blumenthal’s letter Tuesday.

“It is essential that citizens have the right to organize and communicate their views to their government without being required to register as lobbyists,” Bridgeport Bishop William Lori said in a statement Tuesday. “The Attorney General is unambiguous in his view as the State’s chief legal officer that the ‘risk of chilling constitutionally protected political expression by the Church and its members’ is ‘intolerable.’”