Politicizing the pulpit 

Can churches keep election work secret?

Everyone knows the First Amend-ment protects Americans’ freedom of speech and religion, but might it also protect us from election-linked paperwork?

A Montana election law requiring groups to report their financial activities on behalf of ballot initiatives is the target of a lawsuit filed by a conservative Helena church. It also appears to be a source of potential confusion for conservative and progressive churches alike.

On Oct. 9, the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena announced its appeal of a September decision by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who ruled against the church’s case contesting a decision by the Montana commissioner of political practices. The dispute stems from the 2004 election season and the church’s involvement in the campaign for Constitutional Initiative 96, which defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman and ultimately won voters’ widespread approval.

The Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church, led by Pastor Berthold Gotlieb Stumberg III, encouraged its congregation to sign petitions at the church supporting the initiative and also broadcast a TV program opposing same-sex marriage at its Sunday evening worship service, according to the church’s lawsuit.

Following an official complaint by a group lobbying against CI-96, then-Commissioner of Political Practices Gordy Higgins investigated the church and ruled that its expenditures on behalf of the ballot measure—which took the form of a $75 fee for the TV program and its pastor’s on-duty campaigning—qualified as actions by an “incidental political committee” that must be reported to the state on a two-page form, which the church hadn’t submitted.

In response, the church sued the state, alleging that the law violated the First Amendment and “severely chilled” the Church’s ability to put forth its beliefs to its congregation.

On Sept. 26, Judge Molloy dismissed the church’s claim, writing in his order that, “The state has no right to establish a religion and it has no right to keep people from practicing the religion of their choice. But nothing in the First Amendment keeps the state from exercising its regulatory authority over the political process, even when the politicking takes place in the ‘sanctuary.’” Molloy went on to note that all groups, not just churches, must disclose their financial contributions toward ballot measures for the simple purpose of educating voters, who stand to lose if they don’t know the source of campaign support or opposition.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a national conservative organization litigating on the church’s behalf, fired back Oct. 9 in announcing its appeal: “Churches should not be punished for speaking out on important social issues of the day…the Constitution should never be construed to require cumbersome reporting requirements in order to exercise First Amendment rights,” said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt, who did not return the Independent’s call by press time.

Conservative churches aren’t the only religious entities active in Montana politics. This election cycle, an initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage by $1 has garnered support from a number of churches in Missoula. More than a dozen religious organizations recently formed Many Faiths, One Voice to sponsor an event at Caras Park rallying for the wage increase, and member Jean Woessner says that group filed notice of those expenditures with the state.

But a pastor who has voiced support for the minimum wage initiative in the course of her work wonders when exactly the reporting requirement comes into play, aside from one-time events that clearly must be reported.

Dennis Unsworth, current commissioner of political practices, can’t speak about the Baptist church’s ongoing suit, but did explain the law generally. He says that any time two or more people advocate for a ballot measure, they must report related expenditures. So in the case of this year’s minimum wage initiative, a church wouldn’t need to file a report if a member stands up to speak in favor of it. However, if church employees collect signatures or preach on the topic or use the church copy machine for handouts, that monetary value must be estimated and reported to the state. The purpose is voter education, not silencing speech, he says.

“There’s no effort to limit speech on anyone’s part,” Unsworth says. “We’re just requiring that they disclose that involvement.”

Amy Carter, a pastor for Missoula’s University Congrega-tional Church (UCC), says she views addressing pertinent political topics as part of her duties, and while she agrees with disclosing most expenditures, she says it’s hard as a church leader to know where to draw the line.

“It seems to me that any church that was trying to live out its faith [by discussing political matters] would then have to repeatedly file this paperwork on a number of different issues,” Carter says. “It doesn’t seem to me that the law is very clear, so that makes it difficult to know exactly what they should do.”

Unsworth says his office’s investigation of the Baptist church and its status as an incidental political committee is the first time the question has arisen in the last 15 years. In 2004, he says, four Montana churches filed as incidental committees, and this year, no stand-alone churches have declared their ballot-related expenditures. The commissioner of political practices only investigates alleged violations of the law when a complaint is lodged.

But while Carter’s concern about what exactly it takes for a church like hers to satisfy the law may prove more academic than practical, it’s still a question she thinks worth pursuing. The Helena case, which seeks clarification on the law’s legality and application, could provide illumination.

Peter Shober, a second pastor at UCC, says he’s undecided about whether the reporting requirement asks too much of groups like his that repeatedly address political topics in the religious sphere.

“I do know that whenever the state tries to put parameters around my freedom of speech, that’s a big deal,” he says.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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