‘Church Control’ bill scheduled for vote on Jan. 25

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the Massachusetts House of Representatives will likely vote on a bill aimed at controlling the internal operations of churches.

S. 1074, “An Act Relative to Charities in Massachusetts,” introduced by Senator Marian Walsh, D-Boston, is touted as a “reporting” and “transparency” measure. It does much more.

It would subject all churches and religious organizations to the same financial reporting obligations currently applied to secular, non-profit charities. Additionally, the bill brings churches and religious organizations within the oversight of the Massachusetts Public Charities law. These provisions allow the attorney general, with court approval, to investigate the expenditure of charitable funds.

Depending on the results of any investigation, the attorney general could reverse church decisions relating to the allocation of resources, priorities relating to ministry, clergy assignments, and the establishment or closing of parishes.

The sponsors of S. 1074 are candid about filing this bill in response to their disagreement with decisions by the Archdiocese of Boston concerning parish closings and finances. Supporters want to use this legislation as a means of exercising control over the internal affairs of the archdiocese and its parishes. This is not the role of government.

The courts have ruled that the state and federal constitutions prohibit the state from taking sides in internal religious disputes that touch on the structure and operation of a church. The state cannot dictate how a religion governs itself with respect to internal matters.

As recognized by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, “religious freedom encompasses the power of religious bodies to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Furthermore, according to this same court, any state requirement that has “as [its] ultimate goal, regulatory control over religious institutions,” or that otherwise “seek[s] to control or influence any aspect of the [entity’s] operation,” violates the guarantee of religious freedom. That is precisely what this bill would do.

By removing religious exemptions in the financial reporting laws, S. 1074 would require some churches to undergo expensive audits. Religions would have to register with the state before they can pass the collection basket on Sundays. The bill’s supporters refer to the parish as “the local charity,” thus ignoring the differences. Again, they are using the legislation to exercise control over the operations of religious organizations.

Religion is the only non-profit category that enjoys constitutional protection, not because of its charitable work, as important as that is, but because of its essential role in nurturing the spiritual well-being of citizens. People do not go to their local Little League for pastoral guidance. They do not call the United Way to arrange a funeral.

Once the line separating church and state is crossed, then the way is opened for further state intrusion on the whole range of other matters dealing with church structure and organizational governance.

That’s why the bill has caused an uproar from across the spectrum of religious interests, sparking protests from Protestant, Jewish, and other congregations. “Reporting” and “transparency” may be the selling points, but church control is the issue.

Your action is needed ASAP. Please email, call or write your state representative today.

Your message can go something like this: “I am a constituent that lives at [give your home address]. I urge Rep. ____ to vote “No” on S. 1074. The state should not be controlling the internal operations of churches.”

If you do not know who your state representative is, go to the Web site of the Secretary of State [http://www.wheredoivotema.com] and enter your address to get that information.