Mass. State Senate seeks to regulate church funds; many decry as violation of church and state

Massachusetts State Senator Marian Walsh is leading a charge demanding that religious organizations publicly disclose their financial books to the attorney general--an act which many call a flagrant violation of the separation of church and state and an attempt to bully the already battered Catholic Church in Boston.

At a hearing in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood Wednesday, supporters of the proposed bill, which included members of some of the area’s most vocal dissident Catholic groups, listened to testimony about the clergy sexual abuse scandal and rebellion over the closing of local parishes.

They think that the Church, like other secular charitable organizations, should have to file and disclose its financial statements with the state.

Others however, including the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents some 1,700 Orthodox and Protestant churches, the Massachusetts Family Institute, and the Catholic Action League, think that the bill will trample religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

Laura E. Everett, of the Council of Churches told the Boston Globe that, ''This legislation will constitute unwarranted intrusion and excessive entanglement in the lives of all churches."

35 Massachusetts lawmakers back the bill, which would require the state’s religious organizations and churches to annually file financial statements and a list of real estate holdings with the attorney general.

According to the Boston Globe, Edward F. Saunders, head of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, opposes the bill ''mainly on the issue of separation of church and state."

“The bill was being presented” he said, “as a mere reporting bill and it's much, much more than that. By eliminating the religious exemption, it subjects all religions to second-guessing of the internal operations of that religion by the attorney general, to the point where, by various steps, he could go in and change the decisions of the head of any religious organization."

According to a spokesman, also quoted in the Globe, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly was similarly concerned about too much state involvement on church finances.

''The attorney general certainly believes there's a real need for more openness and transparency on the part of religious institutions . . . particularly when it comes to their financial information," said spokesman Corey Welford. ''His concern has been how this bill plays out after enactment."

An editorial in the Boston Herald said that while it’s understandable that Catholics are frustrated with the Church and have a right to know where funds are going, the state government has no business doing the same.

The editorial cited Senator Walsh who told the Globe “that if the Catholic Church is closing parishes while sitting on waterfront property, ‘maybe we should learn what their revenue is, what their salaries are, what they're paying their PR firm.’”

“As a Catholic,” the Herald continued, “Walsh has a right and a duty to demand that information of her church. As a state senator, she does not.”

John Garvey, dean of the Boston College Law School said in a Globe editorial that, “it is not the government's business to take sides in internal church disputes. You can imagine a legal system where it does…Our First Amendment forbids any such arrangement. When we talk about separation of church and state, this is what we mean -- that it is none of the state's business to say how churches are run.”

“The Constitution”, he said, “favors an arrangement that leaves churches financially independent: The government does not support them; it should not inhibit their efforts to support themselves, and it should not get involved in reviewing how they spend their money. That is a matter for churches and their members to resolve among themselves.”

The Catholic Church in Boston was entangled in one of the first and arguably the most massive waves of the priestly sexual abuse scandal which began in the early 2000’s. Archbishop Sean O’Malley, who arrived in Boston two years ago to help rebuild the church, has reportedly sold some $200 million in church holdings to help pay for the cleanup.

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