Mont. election law wrongly applied to church, 9th Circuit rules

Thursday, February 26, 2009

HELENA, Mont. — A federal appeals court says a Montana election law was unconstitutionally applied to an East Helena church that supported a 2004 ballot initiative to define marriage.

Montana’s commissioner of political practices at the time, Gordon Higgins, ruled the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church functioned as an “incidental campaign committee,” which must report its expenditures to the state, because the church supported a 2004 constitutional initiative defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Voters approved the initiative, CI-96, by about a 2-to-1 margin.

Higgins said the church held meetings, distributed petitions and was involved in political activities in support of the measure, which amounted to “in-kind” political contributions. His office did not prosecute the case.

Yesterday, a judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals chided the state for its “petty bureaucratic harassment” of the church.

“I’m ecstatic. I’m on cloud nine right now,” the Rev. B.G. Stumberg III, pastor of the church, told the Associated Press. “We’ve been vindicated and the onerous practices of the political practices commissioner have been put to rest against churches … that shouldn’t have to report to the state when they’re speaking about the moral issues of the day.”

State Solicitor Anthony Johnstone said the court’s limited ruling rejected the plaintiffs’ request to strike down Montana’s campaign-finance disclosure law for initiative-campaign activity.

“The court decided that a church’s endorsement of CI-96 should be exempt from the law under the First Amendment when its activity involved ‘extremely minimal in-kind expenditures’ in support of an initiative campaign,” Johnstone said in an e-mail to the AP.

The church had argued that Higgins’ ruling violated its freedom of speech and religion. It filed suit in 2004 against the commissioner who succeeded Higgins, Linda Vaughey, saying the state campaign laws were unconstitutional.

In 2006, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula ruled against the church. He said in his ruling that “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.’”

The church appealed Molloy’s decision, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, ruling yesterday in Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church v. Unsworth, said the law was applied to the East Helena church in a way that was unconstitutionally vague.

“Expending a few moments of a pastor’s time, or a marginal additional space in the Church for petitions, is so lacking in economic substance that … requiring their reporting creates fatal problems of unconstitutional vagueness,” Judge William C. Canby Jr. wrote for the court.

Judge John T. Noonan, in a concurring opinion, said the state’s action against the church amounted to “petty bureaucratic harassment.”

The key consideration in the case, Noonan wrote, should be the church’s First Amendment rights.

“What has happened here is that a small congregation has been put to trouble and expense in order to exercise its right to speak on an issue seen by it to be of vital religious significance. One lesson of history is that small incursions on freedom are to be resisted lest they grow greater,” Noonan wrote.

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