The Massachusetts House today soundly defeated legislation that would require religious organizations to file annual financial reports with the state, dealing a major blow to lawmakers who sought to make churches and other institutions more accountable to the public.
By a vote of 147-3, the House shot down the latest in a stream of controversial bills that have come to the floor in recent weeks, including failed legislation to grant in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and a primary seat belt bill that narrowly passed last week.
The legislation on religious organizations, which prompted fierce lobbying and scores of phone calls and e-mails to legislators, was seen as a major test of the Catholic Church's influence on Beacon Hill. The church was joined by many other religious groups in opposing the bill, saying it was an unwarranted and costly intrusion by the state into the practice of religion.
The bill would have required all religious organizations to file limited information about their finances and real estate holdings annually with the attorney general's charities division, and would have mandated that any organization with annual revenues of more than $500,000 file detailed financial reports every year.
Some lawmakers and lay Catholics have demanded more information about the financial health and holdings of the Boston Archdiocese as it settled civil suits from the clergy sexual abuse crisis and launched a sweeping reconfiguration of parishes. Supporters of the bill, and chiefly the primary sponsor, state Senator Marian Walsh, argued that the public deserved financial transparency from their churches, synagogues, and other places of worship.
But opponents said the requirements were too onerous and would have meant too much oversight over something the country's founders meant to put beyond the reach of government.
"We are being asked by the proponents of this legislation to radically change our understanding of the role and liberty of religious institutions in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Byron Rushing, the second assistant majority leader and a leading opponent of the bill, said in a long and passionate speech on the floor.
Earlier this week, Governor Mitt Romney dealt a significant setback to efforts to pass the bill when he announced his opposition, meaning that supporters would need a two-thirds majority in order to override his expected veto. The Senate passed the bill last year by an overwhelming margin, but as part of a different piece of legislation.
The defeat followed active behind-the-scenes politicking in the State House, with bill proponents trying to offer amendments to win support from chary House members, and opponents spreading their concerns about the First Amendment.