EAST HELENA, Mont. (BP)–A Montana Southern Baptist church won a significant legal free speech victory Wednesday 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.”
Canby added, “[T]he value of public knowledge that the Church permitted a single like-minded person to use its copy machine on a single occasion to make a few dozen copies on her own paper — as the Church did in this case — does not justify the burden imposed by Montana’s disclosure requirements.”
Judge John T. Noonan was even more critical of the election law, and wrote a concurring opinion noting that churches formed the basis for the arguments of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
“Is it necessary to evoke these historic struggles and the great constitutional benefits won for the country by its churches in order to decide this case of petty bureaucratic harassment?” he asked. “It is necessary. The memory of the memorable battles grows cold. The liberals who applaud their outcomes and live in their light forget the motivation that drove the champions of freedom. They approve religious intervention in the political process selectively: it’s great when it’s on their side. In a secular age, Freedom of Speech is more talismanic than Freedom of Religion. But the latter is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights. It is in terms of this first freedom that this case should be decided.”
Noonan was nominated to the court by President Reagan. Canby and the third judge, Harry Pregerson, were nominated by President Carter.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.