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Faith leaders ally against financial disclosure bill

But acknowledge Catholics' frustration

The legislative battle over a proposed requirement that religious denominations and congregations publicly disclose their finances has provoked an unusual development in interfaith relations, with non-Catholic religious leaders expressing public sympathy for Catholics critical of the Archdiocese of Boston even as they find themselves allied with archdiocesan officials on Beacon Hill.

In multiple interviews this week, religious leaders said that they understand why Roman Catholics are frustrated with archdiocesan leadership and that religious institutions, including the archdiocese, should disclose their finances.

But the religious leaders said they will fight in the Legislature, and, if necessary, in the courts against any effort by government to require such disclosure.

''We understand the frustration and the anger of the supporters of the bill and certainly support their efforts to accomplish what they want to accomplish," said Bishop Roy ''Bud" Cederholm Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. ''The bill asks something that the archdiocese needs to do. But people need to work within their own denomination and not look to the government to resolve their own internal issues."

Andrew Tarsy -- regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that fights anti-Semitism -- said: ''There are nothing but good intentions behind this measure, and there is sympathy for the problems that people are trying to address. But the bill doesn't address the problems, and it brings the state inside religious communities in a way that is unprecedented in Massachusetts. It's good intentions and bad law, and they're glossing over really big issues."

The proposed legislation, which was approved by the Senate 33 to 4 in November, would require religious organizations to report annually their financial and real estate holdings to the attorney general. Currently, other charities are required to file annual financial reports, but religious organizations are exempt.

It is highly unusual for religious officials to comment on the internal affairs of other denominations, but there now appears to be considerable frustration that ongoing controversy within the Roman Catholic church has spilled into the public sector and now threatens the traditional balance of church-state relations in Massachusetts.

The Catholic Church discloses far less financial information to its adherents than do most mainline Protestant denominations and has responded to calls for transparency less aggressively than did evangelical Protestant churches, which introduced new financial accountability measures following the televangelism scandals of the 1980s.

''What I hear, loud and clear, is that people believe churches should be accountable, both for the care of people, and for the management of finances," said Bishop Margaret G. Payne, head of the New England synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. ''People wanted to send that message loud and clear, and I think it got sent, so that's good."

Payne was among several Protestant leaders who said their denominations fully disclose their finances.

''In New England, when people say the church, they're thinking of the Roman Catholic Church, but there are others of us who do church in a very, very different way," she said.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has promised, starting this spring, to begin annual disclosure of archdiocesan finances, but some Catholics do not trust that he will make good on the promise.

Yesterday Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay organization, staged a rally in support of the legislation, which is being pushed most aggressively by Catholic public officials who have been outspoken in their criticism of their own church's leadership, led by Senator Marian Walsh, Democrat of West Roxbury.

''If you listen to the debate, you see that a number of very distressed Roman Catholic laity, who are legislators, are inappropriately using the arm of government to deal with the internal concerns of one particular church," said the Rev. Diane C. Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches. ''There is a real danger, that the courts have recognized over the years, in abusing power and intruding on the affairs of religious communities."

The effort to require reporting by churches appeared to be sailing through the overwhelmingly Catholic Legislature until Monday, when Governor Mitt Romney, who as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the few major players in the Beacon Hill debate who is not Catholic, threatened to veto the measure.

Yesterday, opponents of the bill told State House News Service that support for the measure was dwindling.

Even so, religious leaders were furiously lobbying against the bill yesterday. Cederholm said that if it became law, the Episcopal Church would sue to overturn the law on constitutional grounds, and it appeared likely that numerous other denominations would join in a legal challenge to the measure.

The proposed legislation has united the state's religious communities in a way that few issues have. The coalition battling the bill includes not only the heads of the state's four Catholic dioceses and the leaders of the mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches, but also includes the Unitarian Universalist Association, the First Church of Christ, Scientist; the Islamic Council of New England; the Salvation Army; the Seventh Day Adventist Church; the Assemblies of God; several Jewish organizations, and Vision New England, which represents hundreds of independent evangelical churches. Officials of Romney's church told the Globe that Mormon leaders have not lobbied on the measure, but issued a statement saying, ''The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes the bill raises serious issues."

''You have liberal denominations, conservative denominations, Catholics, the Islamic Council, folks who theologically just don't agree on a lot of issues, but all say this is not a good bill, and that says something," said Harold Sparrow, executive director of the Black Ministerial Alliance.

''Senator Walsh continues to say that nobody understands this," Sparrow said. ''But we do understand this; we just don't agree with it. We think this is bad legislation."

Walsh did not return a phone call and an e-mail seeking comment yesterday.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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