A coalition of Protestant church representatives sidetracked a hotly contested bill yesterday that would require all religious organizations to disclose their financial holdings to the state of Massachusetts.
The move was a blow to those who are hoping to force open the books of the Roman Catholic Church, and a victory for the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which had lobbied against the measure.
Members of Protestant denominations met with House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and more than a dozen other lawmakers yesterday, the last day of formal legislative sessions this year. (While the House voted last night to reconvene next month -- provided the Legislature can agree on major, unresolved bills on healthcare and other key issues -- the church bill will not be affected.)
Church representatives who huddled with DiMasi yesterday said that all religious organizations would be caught up in the requirements of a bill that was aimed at the Catholic Church.
Led by the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the Protestant leaders argued that the bill would be especially onerous on smaller congregations.
DiMasi decided to hold off action yesterday, reversing a vow Tuesday to pass the bill before the House and Senate finished their formal sessions for the year at midnight.
News that DiMasi had shelved the bill angered advocates.
''This is a classic Beacon Hill mugging," said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a cosponsor. ''It's a real failure of leadership. Let the vote be held, win or lose."
Yesterday's lobbying effort was organized by Representative Byron Rushing, a South End Democrat who is active in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Attending the session were Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Diocese of Massachusetts and the Rev. John Stendahl, a Lutheran minister from Newton who is president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, along with representatives of Quaker, Baptist, and Christian Science churches.
Rushing took sharp issue with Galvin's criticism. ''This happens all the time," Rushing said. ''Something that seems important to a few people doesn't seem important to everybody until they have to think about it. He is part of the Beacon Hill culture, so it is disingenuous for anyone who knows the process up here to say there is anything untoward going on."
The bill will be carried over to the 2006 session, although DiMasi, while saying he supports it, would not commit yesterday to a certain date for a vote in the House when it returns in January. The Senate approved the proposal overwhelmingly last week.
Lawmakers said they are considering rewriting the bill to ease some of the regulations in response to concern among smaller religious groups that the requirements are too onerous. They did not elaborate yesterday.
''We will prepare for January," said the bill's chief sponsor, Senator Marian Walsh, a West Roxbury Democrat. ''The speaker would not agree to an ironclad commitment to take it up in January, but he would bring it sometime, so hopefully this is victory delayed."
DiMasi's press secretary, Kimberly Haberlin, said the House leader had reversed his decision to bring the bill to a vote to respond to legislators who had voiced concern that advocates were rushing the bill through the process.
''A number of members, Democrat and Republican alike, expressed concerns about the timing of the bill, and, out of respect for the membership, he postponed action on this matter until the second half of the current two-year session," Haberlin said.
''It would be a failure of leadership not to listen to the concerns of the members," Haberlin added.
The legislation would require all religious organizations that have annual revenues of more than $100,000 to file annual financial reports and a list of real estate holdings with the attorney general's charities division. In response, Archbishop Sean O'Malley has laid out plans to release financial information for the archdiocese.
Though the Catholic Church has mounted a strong campaign to defeat the bill, yesterday's last-minute effort was led by the Protestant leaders who felt that their churches were getting caught in a battle over issues in the Catholic Church and that their concerns were not being taken into account.
The Massachusetts Council of Churches wrote a letter making that argument this month to DiMasi and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini. The council urged religious groups around the state to contact lawmakers.
''The tenor of the debate has been always and ever been a referendum on the Catholic Church," said Laura Everett, the program associate of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which organized the meeting with DiMasi and another session with legislators yesterday.
''We wanted to make sure people knew before they voted what are concerns are," Everett said.
Writing to legislators Nov. 2, Everett and the Rev. Dr. Diane C. Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said: ''We are concerned about the impropriety of using the legislative arm of government to deal with an internal conflict of one church and the dangerous precedent of the legislature getting into the business of regulating and . . . reforming religious institutions. "
That argument was convincing for Representative Ellen Story, an Amherst Democrat, who attended the meeting with the Protestant church leaders and was on the fence about supporting the measure. ''They made a compelling argument that this bill is focused on one denomination," she said.
Galvin acknowledged that the primary focus has been the finances of the Boston Archdiocese and its liquidation of ''hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate without a thorough explanation."