Supreme Knight Addresses Crowd of Thousands at Rally for Religious Liberty

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• Video Coverage of the Rally
• Awaking the Sleeping Giant
• Photos from the Rally 
• Attack on Connecticut’s Catholic Church Poses Threat to All Churches
• Shredding the First Amendment in the Constitution State
• Headline Bistro Article

Shredding the First Amendment in the Constitution State
Remarks of Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson
March 11, 2009
Hartford, Conn.

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson addresses the crowd at the rally

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson addresses the crowd at the rally.

Legislators here in the Constitution State have declared war on the First Amendment.  Make no mistake – the ill-conceived  Bill No. 1098 which you have heard so much about is an attack that exclusively targets the Catholic Church.

It would strip our bishops and priests of their ability to administer dioceses and parishes.

This bill would wrest authority over Church affairs from pastors, bishops and dioceses and instead turn over control to a series of elected boards, explicitly excluding the bishops and pastors from voting.

In effect, this bill states we cannot trust our priests and bishops.  It is an insult to every priest in the state of Connecticut. 

We are here today to say that our priests and bishops should be treated with respect. We are here to say that every person of religious belief in Connecticut should be treated with respect.

The bill was written and rushed before committee without even the courtesy of a call to any of Connecticut’s Catholic bishops. 

We deserve better!

Under a law like this, it is not too much to say that the Catholic Church would no longer be “catholic.” Boards – independent of their bishops – could create parishes more unique than universal. Some denominations prefer such a set up, but the point is that every denomination must remain free to choose.

For this reason, it is precisely the free exercise of religion that is at stake in this bill.

Rally in Hartford against Bill No. 1098

Though this attack is surprising today, it is not unprecedented. Many states, including Connecticut, once maintained anti-Catholic laws that shock our modern understanding of religious freedom.

In Connecticut, Catholics were legally forbidden from holding public office, or owning land into the 19th century. In fact, it took the Constitution State nearly three decades after ratification of the U.S. Constitution to grant something resembling First Amendment religious freedom to Catholics.

Even then attacks continued. Know-Nothings often tried to restrict the actions of the Catholic Church. One of their favorite tools was “trusteeism” – precisely what Bill 1098 would impose.

There has never been any doubt that government-mandated trusteeism was simply a tool to impose severe, unconstitutional limits on the Catholic Church.

Though the stated purpose for this bill is to prevent financial mismanagement of parishes, the bill’s sponsors ignore two facts: not only are such incidences incredibly rare, but the Catholic Church has adopted effective measures to prevent a repeat of such situations. 

And so the bill is not only unconstitutional, it’s unnecessary.

The bill’s sponsors might consider history's verdict on the Know-Nothings - whose tactics they have now adopted, for these Connecticut politicians are not only on the wrong side of the First Amendment, but on the wrong side of history.

It has been more than 150 years since a state was misguided enough to attempt such legislation, and for good reason.

In 1855, in the state of New York, the Know-Nothings scored a victory with the passage of the Putnam Bill in that state's legislature. This bill forced trusteeism on the Catholic Church, and created serious legal problems for its administration. It also presented the same fiction as the current bill: priests and bishops should focus only on matters of faith.

The Putnam Bill was repealed in 1863.

But Bill 1098 turns the clock back more than 150 years. We must not return to the darkest period for religious freedom in our country’s history – a time marked by bigotry and intolerance. The bill’s sponsors may know nothing about history – but we do and they should!

Thousands gathered in Hartford to opppose Bill No. 1098

The lesson from the 19th century is that the power to impose structures that grant or take away authority of church leaders at the discretion of government officials is the power to intimidate and ultimately to destroy. 

As New York’s Bishop Hughes said in 1842: “Every religious denomination in this country … has a right to regulate, according to its own rules, the questions of ecclesiastical discipline pertaining to its Government. Deny this right, and you destroy religious liberty.”

If a state can so easily brush aside the First Amendment and tell one church how it must be organized and operated today, it can easily do the same to any other religion tomorrow.
Those of us who live in Connecticut should be especially sensitive to our First Amendment liberties.

Consider this: Back in 1801, a group of 26 Connecticut churches known as the Danbury Baptist Association wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to ask his help in challenging a state law that established the Congregational Church as the state church of Connecticut.  His letter bears directly on the issue we face with Bill 1098.  This is what President Jefferson said in his letter:

Bishop Lori addresses the crowd

“Believing with you that religion is a matter that lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

President Jefferson considered our First Amendment to be an: “expression of the supreme will of the Nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

We call upon Connecticut legislators to stand with Jefferson, and protect our Catholic Church and every Church in Connecticut!

The bill doesn’t stand a chance against a court challenge of its constitutionality. But even introducing this Bill sends a dangerous message to all religious leaders that will chill freedom of religion and free speech as religious leaders are forced to consider whether what they say will subject them to government interference and intimidation.

How ironic that lawmakers from the “Constitution State,” have proposed this archaic measure.

In closing, I would like to say something about all the talk about this bill having been made in response to the concerns of the laity.  As the leader of the Knights of Columbus –  the largest organization of the laity in the U.S. and Connecticut, let me tell you what we are concerned about:

• We are concerned that our bishops and priests are treated with respect;

• We are concerned that this legislature have procedures that are fair and deliberate and not a rush to judgment;

• We are concerned that our First Amendment religious liberties be protected.

• And may the God who gave us liberty bless the State of Connecticut and the deliberations of this Legislature.

Thank you.

More information:

Diocese of Bridgeport

Family Institute of Connecticut

National Catholic Register

Archbishop Mansell Statement

Connecticut Catholic Conference Action Alert