Montana Think Tank Says Bill to Protect Churches’ Free Speech is Good Policy

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[Big Sky Public Policy Institute] Senate Bill 162, sponsored by Sen. David Howard (SD29), is a necessary clarification for the Montana law code and will protect First Amendment rights of both the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

In 2004, the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church was punitively targeted by the Commissioner of Political Practices and charged with violating state campaign finance law for supporting a referendum to ban sodomy-based marriage. Their appeal was rejected by a federal judge, which is ordinarily how it goes in such disputes. This underlies an even deeper systemic problem with the office of the Commissioner for Political Practices and its traditional role of harassing conservatives, of which courts are redizent to overturn.

Thankfully, in 2009 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – the most liberal appelate court in the United States – overturned the lower court and called their actions, “petty bureaucratic harassment.”

Meanwhile, regulating how churches can spend funds to support their values or beliefs, is not only unconstitutional, it’s next to impossible to enforce. When testifying on behalf of SB162, former Dawson county representative and current liason for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Alan Doane, explained that the state is not prepared to defend itself against such lawsuits.

While opposed by the Commissioner for Political Practices, who thirsts for power and authority to regulate free speech (and is often challenged in court and overturned), as well as various liberal organizations that want to confine the exercise of religion to within four walls of the church house, SB162 provides necessary First Amendment protections.

The far-left Montana Nonprofit Association also opposes the bill, with its pro-abortion director, Liz Moore, claiming that “would have the effect of giving churches a tax deduction for money spent on political endorsements.”

Moore’s hot-take is actually astute. Church-goers whose religion (like Christianity) requires them to “be salt and light” (Matthew 5: 13-16) in their communites are bound by their conscience and faith to speak out against that which they consider to be injustice and speak up for that which they consider to be in line with their religious values.

At the center of this debate is a fundamental disagreement between conservatives and liberals as to what the First Amendment recognizes as inviolable. Liberals interepret the First Amendment to permit the freedom of worship, which is confined to a particular time and place in a corporate service. Conservatives, on the other hand, correctly interpret the U.S. Constitution to permit the “free exercise of religion,” which is lived-out and practice 7 days a week and 24 hours a day and applies to political activism as well as the “smells and bells” of liturgy or the Sunday sermon.

Jamie McNaughton, chief legal council for the CoPP, complained that it would cause an undue burden to navigate the law. I think Montanans would agree that it’s better than the CoPP be forced to navigate the finer points of law than churches. It’s literally their job to know the legal code and act accordingly. Churches, on the other hand, have better things to do than to worry about how to avoid potential landmines in the code placed their complicate what it takes to practice their faith.

SB162 is a good bill and should be passed, post haste.

[Editor’s Note: This article is taken from a policy paper written by the Big Sky Public Policy Institute, a division of the Gideon Knox Group]




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