An independent publisher of contemporary religious music has filed an $8.6 million damage suit in Chicago against the U.S. Catholic bishops, charging them with copyright infringement through use of "pirated hymnals" in churches throughout the country.

The suit filed by Dennis J. Fitzpatrick, owner of the Los Angeles based F.E.L. Publications, LTD., specifically cites 15 dioceses, including the Diocese of Arlington, for alleged violation involving unauthorized photo-copying of copyright music.

Fitzpatrick's company, whose initials stand for Friends of the English Liturgy; has ridden the crest of the post-Vatican II demand for contemporary religious songs in the Catholic Church.

The company probably is best known for 'They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love." The song by a Wisconsin priest, the Rev. Peter Scholtes, has become a favorite of both Catholic and Protestants, particularly young people.

More than a year ago, the firm filed a similar suit against the Catholic archbishop of Chicago. Final disposition of that suit is pending, but the firm has forced the archdiocese to turn over 80,000 "pirated hymnal collections," according to Fitzpatrick.

While a Catholic bishop bears responsibility for actions of institutions within his diocese, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has only an advisory relationship to local diocese in most matters.

In filing the suit, Fitzpatrick claims that through its committee on the liturgy, the bishops' conference has "an existing means for controlling the the musical content of the Catholic liturgy and for eliminating the copyright linfringements that exist."

The Rev. Thomas A. Krosnecki, associate director of the bishops' liturgy committee, said earlier this week that he had not yet received notice of the suit and declined comment.

The suit charges the bishops' conference with "failing to provide adequate direction to their dioceses and parishes" regarding copyright restrictions.

In a widely distributed press release announcing the suit, Fitzpatrick declared: "I simply cannot imagine Jesus worshiping with a stolen hymnal."