The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., says he's a man of God, not a lobbyist. But state officials say he's both.
According to the Connecticut Office of State Ethics, the diocese acted as a lobbying organization in March when it rented buses to transport people to a rally in Hartford — the state capital — to protest a bill that would have granted more power to parishioners regarding church finances.
Officials also are investigating whether the church acted as a lobbying organization on its Web site when it urged parishioners to contact lawmakers about the bill, which eventually was withdrawn amid public outcry, and about a another bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which was signed into law in April.
Now the ethics office is "evaluating" whether the diocese failed to register as a lobbyist — an investigation that Bishop William Lori says violates the diocese's First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.
"I don't know what the motive of the Office of State Ethics was or is, but I do know that their actions stem directly from our attempts to defend ourselves in the face of two pieces of legislation that were unfriendly to the day-to-day mission of the church," Lori told FOXNews.com on Thursday.
"We were simply seeking to fulfill our mission, to continue to be ourselves."
And the diocese is fighting back, bringing a civil lawsuit against two Office of State Ethics officials — Enforcement Officer Thomas K. Jones and Executive Director Carol Carson.
Connecticut law defines lobbying as "communicating directly or soliciting others to communicate with any official or his staff in the legislative or executive branch of government or in a quasi-public agency, for the purpose of influencing any legislative or administrative action."
Individuals or organizations must register as a lobbyist if they spend more than $2,000 per year lobbying. Each violation of the lobbying law is punishable by penalties up to $10,000.
The diocese acknowledges in its lawsuit that it coordinated transportation to the rally, and that it incurred expenses exceeding $2,000. But that, says the bishop, does not make the church a lobbying organization.
"It seems to me that by requiring a diocese or any other entity to register with the state before it can protest an unfriendly action by the state has a chilling affect," Lori said. "I don't think it's in anyone's interest that a protest rally be labeled lobbying."
Reaction to the church-state confrontation has been plentiful and polarizing. A local newspaper called on state government to focus on its "billion-dollar deficits," and a local Internet radio host wound up behind bars after he urged his listeners to "take up arms" against Jones, Connecticut state Rep. Michael Lawlor and state Sen. Andrew McDonald for their support of the finance bill.
"It is our intent to foment direct action against these individuals personally," the radio host, Harold Turner, wrote on his blog on June 2. "These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die."
On June 3, the day after he wrote those words, Turner, 47, was arrested and charged with inciting injury to persons or property, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, reports say. In his most recent post, he says he intends to intends to "confront" Connecticut officials with his attorney.
Lori said the church condemns "any type of violence or threat" made in connection to the ethics probe and civil suit. Diocese spokesman Joseph McAleer, meanwhile, said "a lot" of churchgoers in the state feel the church has been singled out. The diocese contains 87 parishes and more than 410,000 parishioners.
"People can only assume that people are out to get us," McAleer told FOXNews.com. "It feels like retaliation, that's the feeling amongst the Catholics of Fairfield County. Where is freedom of speech? Where is freedom of assembly? It's mind-boggling."
But Carson says the ethics office is just doing its job.
"We're content neutral," the Office of Ethics official told FOXNews.com. "It does not matter to us whether someone is for or against any issue. We're an independent watchdog agency and it's not the case that anyone in state government came to us and said, 'You need to look at this.'
"What's at issue for us is if you're lobbying, or seeking to influence executive action, and you spend more than $2,000, that the citizens of Connecticut will have transparency so they know who is spending to influence legislation."