It’s remarkable what a little publicity can accomplish. Take, for example, Connecticut lawmakers Mike Lawlor and Andrew McDonald, who pledged to support and defend the US Constitution as part of their public duties. After their attempt to dictate the structure of the Catholic Church in Connecticut resulted in outrage and derision, they finally got around to reading the founding document:
Following the biggest political firestorm of the 2009 legislative session, a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday on the financial and administrative management of the Catholic Church has been canceled. The bill is dead for the rest of the legislative session.
As soon as word spread about the bill, the Legislative Office Building was flooded with telephone calls and e-mails on Monday. The bill, virtually overnight, became the hottest issue at the state Capitol.
The cancellation came less than 24 hours after Senate Republican John McKinney of Fairfield called for the cancellation, saying that his caucus was unanimously against the bill because they believe it is clearly unconstitutional.
It’s more than a belief. The First Amendment makes that clear:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
After many people wondered aloud how Lawlor and McDonald managed to graduate their high-school civics class, they finally admitted that their bill to strip Catholic bishops of authority over parishes had, well, overreached — but they blamed Connecticut for their confusion:
For reasons that are unclear, Connecticut has had generations-old laws on the books singling out particular religions and treating them differently from other religions in our statutes. That doesn’t seem right.
You’re just figuring that out?
In fact, many of our existing corporate laws dealing with particular religious groups appear to us to be unconstitutional under the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If that is correct, any changes to that law would likely also be unconstitutional.
No kidding! And your solution was to expand those laws?
With that in mind, it would serve no useful purpose to have a conversation about changing the laws that govern existing Roman Catholic corporations until we know if any of these existing laws are constitutional.
Did it not occur to Lawlor and McDonald that legislating the structure of a religion is not a useful purpose for government at all, and not just when they’ve discovered that they goofed by expanding unenforced and unenforceable laws on their books? In what way does the state of Connecticut have any “useful purpose” in designing church management structures?
Update: Some in the comments say that Lawlor and McDonald only have to worry about the state constitution, not the federal Constitution. I beg to differ — here’s the oath of office, emphasis mine:
You do solemnly swear (or affirm) that you will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Connecticut, so long as you continue a citizen thereof; and that you will faithfully discharge, according to law, the duties of the Office of State Representative to the best of your abilities; so help you God.
States cannot infringe on rights enumerated in the Constitution. That explicitly includes the right to free speech, assembly, redress of grievances, bearing arms, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and protection against self-incrimination, among others. Any state law that infringes on these are unconstitutional and invalid.