A Minnesota state lawmaker is sponsoring a bill aimed at giving members of Catholic parishes a vote in key decisions -- such as the archdiocese's decision to merge a number of metro area congregations.

Rep. Joe Mullery, a DFLer whose district includes portions of Minneapolis, proposes in the bill that as part of "Catholic governance" a parish "shall be governed by the congregation. Every member of the parish shall be entitled to vote at meetings."

The bill violates the separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution, said religious scholars and critics of the legislation.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state's bishops, said the bill "represents a gross intrusion of the state into the affairs and governance of a church. The bishop is responsible for the governance of his particular diocese. It violates that very core principle of Catholic doctrine and Catholic life and practice."

Mullery did not return several phone calls by the Star Tribune seeking comment about the legislation, introduced on Saturday.

The legislation appears to be a response to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' sweeping reorganization plan issued last fall, which called for 21 parishes to merge with 14 "receiving" parishes.

At least four parishes set to merge are appealing their fate to the Vatican, said Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese.

Among them is St. Austin in north Minneapolis, where Mullery attends services, according to the church's pastor, the Rev. George Kallumkalkudy. He said he was unaware of Mullery's legislation but said congregants were not happy about the plan to merge with St. Bridget Church.

As part of Mullery's bill, "any proposed merger or termination of a Catholic parish, or transfer or sale of parish assets, may only take effect upon approval of the parish congregation at a special meeting called solely to consider the proposed action."

A rare move for politician

The Rev. Tom Reese, a religious scholar with Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., who's written books on Catholic church hierarchy, said he's not aware of such legislation in other states.

"Politicians have been very reluctant to get involved in trying to tell churches how they should run themselves," Reese said.

Reese noted that, as in the Twin Cities, a number of Catholic dioceses across the country have gone through massive reorganizations. Archdiocese officials have said reorganization is a response to tighter budgets, shifting demographics and a projected shortage of priests.

"I have never seen a situation where people are happy to see their parish closed or merged," Reese said. "On the other hand, certainly it helps if the decisionmakers are consulting and listening to the parish, to the people in the congregation and explaining to them why this is happening."

Archdiocese officials have defended the reorganization plan and say it was the result of 20 months of study and consultation with clergy, parish leaders and staff, parishioners and Catholic families.

Adkins said he doesn't expect Mullery's bill to get any traction as the legislative session winds down to adjournment Monday.

"It's something we're certainly going to monitor," he said. "It's certainly concerning a legislator would offer something so plainly unconstitutional."

Rose French • 612-673-4352