A Direct Attack on the First Amendment

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5/1/2009

by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Carl A. Anderson

Recently, legislators in the Constitution State, Connecticut, declared war on the First Amendment. The attack was a bill that exclusively targeted the Catholic Church and would have stripped bishops and priests of their ability to administer dioceses and parishes.

Raised Bill no. 1098 would have wrested authority over parish affairs from our bishops and priests and instead turned over control to a series of elected boards (trustees), explicitly excluding bishops and pastors. It was written and rushed before committee without even a phone call to any of Connecticut’s Catholic bishops.

Of course, the First Amendment is clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

Although one in four Americans is Catholic, the country still has a very Protestant outlook on certain issues. The nature of an apostolic church – one in which the bishop is essential to its unity – is obviously not fully appreciated if such a law can be proposed.

The effect of this law would have been the balkanization of the Catholic Church. Our one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church would no longer be “apostolic” if bishops were not allowed to oversee their dioceses. And rather than being “one” and “catholic,” our Church could become many and inconsistent as trustees force their own understanding of theology on parishes that depend on them financially.

Some Protestant denominations prefer such a model, but the point is that we must remain free to choose. This is the essence of religious liberty.

While the stated purpose for the Connecticut bill was to prevent financial mismanagement of parishes, its proponents seemed unaware that such mismanagement is rare and is addressed effectively by regulations already in place. In the end, the bill was both unconstitutional and unnecessary.

This attack was surprising, but not unprecedented. In Connecticut, Catholics were legally forbidden from holding public office or owning land, even in the 19th century.

After ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, Catholics in the Constitution State had to wait nearly three decades for religious freedom. Even then, attacks continued. Nativists and Know-Nothings often tried to restrict the Catholic Church.

In 1855, in New York, the Know-Nothings scored a victory by passing the Putnam Bill, which forced trusteeism on the Church and created serious problems for its administration. It was repealed in 1863, when New York’s need for Catholic recruits for the Union Army outweighed its desire to campaign against the Church.

Bill 1098 would have turned the clock back more than 150 years, proving that Catholics must guard against a return of bigotry. The lesson from the 19th century is that the power to impose structures that grant or take away authority from Church leaders is the power to intimidate and ultimately to destroy.

If a state can ignore the First Amendment and tell the Catholic Church how it must be organized and operated today, it can easily do the same tomorrow to any religion.

Although Bill 1098 was tabled [see article on page 6], it was the second attempt in recent years in Connecticut to attack the Church head on. The first was a bill several years ago that would have eliminated the seal of confession. We can only expect that here, and elsewhere, such attacks – and more subtle ones – are likely.

How ironic that lawmakers from the “Constitution State” proposed this archaic measure. Having introduced the legislation just a week prior, the Judiciary Committee gave the public three business days to consider Bill 1098 and testify on it before a committee hearing.

For legislators from a state that was so slow to implement the First Amendment, these men seem to be in an awful hurry to do away with it.

I want to thank all my brother Knights in Connecticut who worked so hard to defeat this attack on our Church and our religious liberties.

Vivat Jesus!