Christian Coalition fights states’ efforts to force disclosure of donors

Friday, September 17, 1999

Saying campaign-finance disclosure laws squelch free speech and violate free-association rights, several state chapters of the Christian Coalition have filed complaints against government efforts to force the groups to reveal their spending habits in referendum campaigns.

James Bopp Jr., an attorney for the Christian Coalition, says state officials have no right to demand donor lists and spending reports from citizen groups engaging in ballot issues.

“The issue has already been decided by the Supreme Court. People have an absolute right to talk about government policy, and that's what a ballot measure is,” Bopp said. “And when you prohibit an organization … from discussing government policy, unless they become a political committee, you've imposed a huge burden on them. The First Amendment will not tolerate that.”

Several states — most recently Maine, Hawaii and Alabama — have tried to force the Christian Coalition to disclose its spending habits on referendum campaigns. Yesterday, a federal judge in Alabama refused to grant the state chapter there an exemption from the state's campaign-finance disclosure law.

The Alabama Christian Coalition, which is campaigning against a state lottery, objected to having to disclose names of contributors giving more than $100, as required under the law. The group planned to prepare an anti-lottery voter guide for use in the Oct. 12 referendum.

The group said the guide was expected to cost $20,000, which, under the state law, would have required it to register with state election officials as a political action committee.

Despite the group's claims, U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer of Mobile said efforts by Alabama officials to get the group to turn over names of contributors didn't violate free speech. Vollmer said he would issue a written ruling later.

Bopp argued before Vollmer that disclosure is necessary for political candidates but creates a profound, unconstitutional burden on citizen groups wishing to speak out on ballot issues. He said the effort to force the Christian Coalition to turn over contribution lists discouraged donors and could subject some to harassment.

Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says state election laws that require nonprofit groups to reveal their contribution lists are “an effort to intimidate by forcing disclosure of membership.”

“That was a tactic that was used against the NAACP until found the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional,” said Pilon, referring to the court's 1958 ruling in NAACP v. Alabama. “So it has come full circle.”

But Richard Dorman, a Mobile attorney representing Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and the Alabama Education Lottery Foundation, says that the Supreme Court, in five cases over the last 25 years has ruled that the type of disclosures required in Alabama “are valid limitations on the First Amendment right of free speech.”

Some note that the court in the 1976 landmark campaign-finance case Buckley v. Valeo upheld certain types of contribution restrictions as appropriate ways to combat “the reality or appearance of improper influence” on elections.

“If the state has a law which requires disclosure of money, that laws serves some important interest in informing citizens of the influences on ballot measures,” said Don Simon, executive director of Common Cause, a nonprofit group supporting campaign-finance reforms across the country. “These laws are not targeted at the Christian Coalition. They are always applied across the board.”

The Christian Coalition “should play by the same rules as anyone else,” Simon said. “If [it is] spending money to influence an election, [it needs] to follow the election laws.”

But Christian Coalition member Paul Volle of Maine disagrees. Volle filed a federal lawsuit there recently charging that state officials are violating his free-speech rights by making him form a political action committee.

“It's none of the state's business who's contributing to me or how I'm spending my money,” Volle said. ” I either have freedom of speech or I don't.”

Volle's conflict with Maine officials dates back to January, when the state's Ethics Commission found him in violation of state PAC laws. The commission ordered him to pay a $250 fine and register his business, Management Research and Development Association, as a political action committee.

The commission determined that his business illegally campaigned against a local gay-rights ordinance that South Portland voters approved in November 1998.

Volle complied with the ruling under protest.

William Coogan, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, says that while he doesn't agree with Volle's politics, he does agree that the PAC laws stifle free speech.

“Anonymous contributions are a way of safeguarding people's speech,” Coogan said. “I think Volle ought to be able to get secret contributions.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.