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State rules against Mont. church for backing marriage amend.

HELENA, Mont. (BP)–In a decision that conservatives say chills religious expression, a Montana state official March 7 ruled that a Southern Baptist church violated state election laws in 2004 by endorsing a constitutional marriage amendment petition drive without notifying the state.

In a 10-page ruling, Gordon Higgins, Montana’s commissioner of political practices, said that Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church was required by state law to fill out paperwork and report itself as an “incidental political committee,” which it did not do. The church placed petitions for the amendment, known as CI-96, in the foyer, and its pastor, Berthold G. Stumberg III, encouraged support for it from the pulpit. The church is located in East Helena.

The amendment passed by a margin of 66-34 percent.

“Use of the church’s facilities to obtain signatures on CI-96 petitions, along with Pastor Stumberg’s encouragement of persons to sign the CI-96 petitions during regularly scheduled church services, obviously had value to the campaign in support of CI-96,” Higgins wrote.

Montana’s campaign finance law requires the “full disclosure and reporting of the sources and disposition of funds used … to support candidates, political committees or issues.” According to state law, funds and contributions are defined as “anything of value.”

The violation could result in a fine ranging from $50 to several thousand dollars, Higgins told a Montana newspaper.

The complaint against the church was filed in 2004 by the homosexual activist group Montanans for Families and Fairness. Shortly thereafter, the conservative Alliance Defense Fund sued then-Commissioner Linda L. Vaughey in federal court after she began investigating the church. That lawsuit now targets Higgins. If successful, the lawsuit would overturn Higgins’ ruling and strike down the law.

ADF attorney Gary McCaleb said the law unconstitutionally infringes on religious expression and free speech.

“It has a chilling effect on a church’s speech,” he told Baptist Press. “It means [the church] has to register with the state and jump through a bunch of election-law-reporting hoops merely for putting a few pieces of paper out in the foyer. It’s a pretty outrageous extension of election law into the free speech realm.”

The church tallied a small legal victory in January 2005 when Chief U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy refused to throw out the lawsuit. Molloy has yet to rule on the case, and McCaleb speculated that the judge may have been waiting for Higgins to hand down his ruling.

Alliance Defense Fund, McCaleb said, generally doesn’t object “to the notion that states can require people to report contributions … supporting ballot initiatives.” But the Montana law, he said, “reaches too far” by defining any level of support as a contribution. Although Higgins’ ruling did not place a monetary figure on Canyon Ferry Road Baptist’s contributions, it likely was minimal — for instance, making copies of petitions on the church copier. Yet the church member who made the petition copies supposedly used her own paper. The petitions stayed in the foyer from May 9 through June 13, 2004. The effort netted 98 signatures.

“Literally one penny would trigger this law,” McCaleb said, adding that for a law to be constitutional, “you need some sort of clear threshold or trigger, and every law that has been upheld has some sort of clear monetary trigger.”

The homosexual activist group filed the complaint after the church hosted a public event in May 2004 and viewed a nationwide “Battle for Marriage” broadcast. Pro-family leaders such as James Dobson spoke during the broadcast. During that event Stumberg spoke about the biblical view of marriage and encouraged people to sign the petitions. Roughly 90 people were in attendance.

In his ruling, Higgins said some churches that gathered petitions registered with the state. McCaleb, though, objected to the idea of registering because it sparks government regulation.

“This law actually reaches inside to the church and requires that it designate a treasurer,” he said. ” … It actually limits who you can bank with. It basically reaches into the organization and regulates its day-to-day operations.

“… It triggers a host of regulations for a very minimal exercise of classic orthodox Christian faith, saying, ‘We want to support marriage and we want to be part of our community.'”

McCaleb fears the ruling will scare pastors from getting involved in moral issues such as “gay marriage.” ADF, he said, has affidavits from pastors who said they decided not to get involved in the marriage amendment debate in 2004 because of restrictive laws.

“[The ruling] really proves our point that the law goes too far, and that’s why we went to federal court,” he said.
For more information about the national debate over “gay marriage,” visit http://www.bpnews.net/samesexmarriage

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  • Michael Foust