February 26, 2009
Court Sides with Montana Church over Free Speech
The free speech rights of a Montana church were violated when it was told to register as a political committee after hosting an anti-gay marriage event in 2004, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals about Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church in East Helena, Mont., overturned a lower court decision.
The church participated in a "Battle for Marriage" satellite simulcast in 2004 and distributed petitions in support of a successful initiative to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman in Montana's constitution.
"We conclude that, by applying its disclosure provisions to the church's (minor) in-kind contributions in the context of a state ballot initiative, the commission violated the church's First Amendment rights," wrote Judge William C. Canby Jr.
In a concurring opinion, Judge John T. Noonan wrote that "An unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered churches."
Dale Schowengerdt, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund who
represented the church, welcomed the decision.
"Churches shouldn't be penalized for expressing their beliefs," he said.