- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

A religious-freedom group yesterday filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Montana for investigating a church accused by a homosexual-rights group of violating state law by promoting heterosexual marriage during one of its services.

“This suit is about protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans and the ability of churches in particular to discuss their faith and issues affecting their faith,” said Tim Fox, the attorney for Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in East Helena, Mont.

On May 23, the church held a service that included a simulcast discussion titled “The Battle for Marriage.” The church also made available a petition for a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

A homosexual-rights coalition then complained that the church had violated state election laws by engaging in politics without having registered as an “incidental political committee.”

Montana law requires the designation for any group of two or more persons that makes a political expenditure, defined as “a purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, promise, pledge or gift of money or anything of value made for the purpose of influencing the results of an election.”

The state is investigating the complaint, and the church’s lawsuit — backed by the religious-freedom group Alliance Defense Fund — claims that the investigation violates the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion.

Rob Hill, a spokesman for the homosexual-rights umbrella group Montanans for Families and Fairness, which filed the complaint against the church, said the church crossed the line into political activity by encouraging members to sign the petition.

The paper that was used and the general expenses associated with the service made the state law applicable, he said.

“We certainly respect the church’s right to free speech and to preach on the values that they believe in,” he said. “But if they are going to engage in outright political activities, there are reports they have to file. If the people on our side have to file these reports, then they do as well.”

Dale Schowengerdt, an Alliance Defense Fund lawyer, criticized the law and said the pro-homosexual organization is using it as “a bully and a scare tactic” to keep the initiative off the ballot.

“If churches have to register with the state to be able to freely express their position on the subject of marriage,” Mr. Schowengerdt said, “the state places onerous reporting requirements and filing requirements on the church simply because it’s expressed a view that coincides with a ballot initiative.”

“The basis is simply this,” he said. “Church members and leaders don’t surrender their First Amendment rights when they enter the doors of their church.”

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Linda Vaughey has yet to decide the issue, and her office declined to comment on the case.

Meanwhile, Montanans for Families and Fairness has sent letters to other churches in Montana regarding the issue, an exercise that Mr. Schowengerdt said has had “a chilling effect” on churches that want to discuss the issue of marriage.

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