An appeals court ruled the state of Montana violated a church's First Amendment rights to encourage its members to support traditional marriage.
The ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the state's determination that the church was an "incidental political committee" because members promoted and signed petitions supporting traditional marriage, and the pastor also encouraged it.
The complaint against Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena was sparked by a complaint from a homosexual activist group, the court ruling noted. The Alliance Defense Fund took up the fight for the church by filing a lawsuit in 2004 after the state issued its ruling against the church.
"Churches shouldn't be penalized for expressing their beliefs. They should never be forced to forfeit their free speech rights just because the government decides to enact unconstitutional laws requiring them to remain silent on social issues," said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt, who litigated the case with co-counsel Tim Fox of the Helena law firm of Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman.
"Churches have the right to speak about the moral issues of our time. That is what churches do," said Fox. "This ruling affirms that churches are free to disagree and to participate in public debate."
The appeals court also determined the state's political practices law is vague.
"An unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered churches. Churches have played an important – no, an essential – part in the democratic life of the United States," wrote Judge John T. Noonan.
"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? It is necessary," he continued.
"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," the judge said.
When the district court ruling went against the church in 2006, ADF lawyers appealed to the 9th Circuit, arguing the Constitution should never be construed to demand cumbersome reporting requirements for churches to discuss moral issues.
The church had been cited for not submitting to a series of reporting requirements under the state's campaign finance law when a member made copies on a church copy machine of a petition in support of a 2004 state ballot initiative supporting traditional marriage.
Church leaders, including Pastor Berthold Stumberg III, supported the petition, which was signed by members, actions that were cited as violations by the Montana commissioner of political practices.
The marriage proposal ultimately was adopted 67 percent to 33 percent in the state, and the church's involvement triggered a complaint from "Montanans for Families and Fairness." Montana is one of dozens of states in which voters have adopted constitutional provisions limiting marriage to one man and one woman.
The court opinion said, "The Church argues that it cannot constitutionally be subjected to the disclosure and reporting requirements applicable to 'incidental political committees' under Montana law on the sole basis of its activities of de minimis economic effect in connection with the Battle for Marriage event and related petition – signing efforts in support of CI-96. It argues, inter alia, that, as applied to its activities, the Montana statute is impermissibly vague. We agree in part with the Church's vagueness claim and hold that, as applied to (1) the placement of the petition in its foyer and (2) Stumberg's exhortation to sign the petition in support of CI-96 during a regularly scheduled Sunday service, the Commission's interpretation of 'inkind Expenditures' is unconstitutionally vague. We also agree that the designation of the Church as an 'incidental Committee' because of its one-time, in-kind 'expenditures' of de minimis economic effect violates the Church's First Amendment free speech rights."
The judge said broadcast stations, newspapers, magazines and other operations are exempt from such reporting requirements, and so should a church.
"The media are free to promote political opinions without registering as independent political committees and without disclosing the identity of those owning the facilities used to promote the opinions. The most likely sources of potent political input into an election are removed from the statute's scope. The generality of the statute is destroyed. The neutrality of the statute is preserved as to the media while all religious expressions on a ballot measure are swept within its requirements. The disparity between the treatment of the media and the treatment of churches is great and gross," he said.
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Tags: 1st Amendment, Free speech is only free if it is liberal free speech
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