February 27 2009 by Michael Foust, Baptist Press

    EAST HELENA, Mont. — A Montana Southern Baptist church won a significant legal free speech victory Feb. 25 that could pave the way for other churches to take a stand on ballot initiatives during election years.

    At issue was Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena and its urging of church members to support a proposed state constitutional marriage amendment in 2004. A Montana state commission ruled that the congregation had violated state campaign finance laws by backing the amendment without reporting itself as an “incidental political committee” and detailing its financial support, which was minimal.

    But a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Feb. 25 that the state commission had violated the congregation’s First Amendment rights and had unconstitutionally applied the law to the church. The decision overturned a lower court decision that had sided with the state.

    Montana’s campaign finance laws are some of the most strict in the nation in governing what churches can and cannot do during election cycles. The ruling applies only to Montana and the eight other states in the Ninth Circuit but could be used by courts in other circuits when looking for guidance on the issue.

    “I think it’s a huge victory,” said Alliance Defense Fund attorney Dale Schowengerdt, who helped represent the church. “I think this is going to have far-ranging impact for churches across the country. Confusing and burdensome election laws are being used in battles on marriage and other important issues to silence churches. This validates that churches can play a fundamental role in shaping our democracies and speaking out on important social issues like marriage, and they can’t be silenced by laws that have marginal, if any, connections to a state interest.”

    The church could have faced a fine if the state commission’s finding had stood.

    With about 100 resident members, Canyon Ferry Road and its pastor, B.G. Stumberg III, began promoting Montana’s proposed marriage amendment in May 2004 when a church member used her own paper to make copies on the church copying machine and placed the copies in the foyer for people to sign. That same month, the church viewed a Sunday evening “Battle for Marriage” nationwide simulcast featuring pro-family leaders such as James Dobson, and Stumberg urged church members to sign the petition to place the issue on the Montana ballot. The proposed amendment defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

    The church turned in 98 signatures, and the amendment eventually passed, but Canyon Ferry found itself in hot water because a group opposing the amendment had filed a complaint with the state against the church, saying the congregation had failed to report itself as an “incidental political committee.” The church, represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, then filed suit against the state, saying its constitutional rights were violated. Two years later in 2006 the state Commission on Political Practices released its report that said “it is clear” the church became an incidental political committee, “with corresponding reporting obligations.”

    But the Ninth Circuit panel found that “the Commission violated the Church’s First Amendment rights.” The panel criticized the fact that any amount of money — even several dollars — would have triggered the state’s reporting requirement. Election laws, it noted, typically are used to let the public know who is contributing substantial amounts to campaigns.

    “As a matter of common sense, the value of this financial information to the voters declines drastically as the value of the expenditure or contribution sinks to a negligible level,” Judge William C. Canby Jr. wrote for the court. “... In the present case, the voters could learn little about the financial backing of the ballot proposition by gaining access to information about the Church’s activities of minimal economic effect.”
        
    (EDITOR’S NOTE — Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.)

    2/27/2009 7:31:00 AM by Michael Foust, Baptist Press | with 1 comments




Comments
Dr. James Willingham
We can be thankful for the alertness of some judges, because in many parts of this nation they do want to bring churches under the control of laws or rulings designed to restrain even their participation in the political processes which bear directly upon the church's mission which, in this case, the marriage amendment did. Lately, we have heard that the White House has determined that no one offering a prayer at a public function where the President is speaking will not be allowed to pray in the name of Jesus. THIS IS CLEARLY A VIOLATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN THAT WAY OF PRAYER. INDEED, IT IMPOSES THE VIEWS OF THOSE WHO DO NOT APPROVE OF PRAYING IN THE NAME OF JESUS ON THOSE WHO DO BELIEVE IN IT. My ancestors fought in the American Revolution, and I have no doubt that they would be willing to start that revolution all over again, if they were alive today. One of my ancestors was involved in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. He was a Second Lieutenant and served in other actions as well. He drew an Revolutionary War Pension in his old age.
2/27/2009 10:14:26 PM

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