A Surprise Legal Victory Ensures a Montana Church's Religious Freedom

Inside the Issues with Alan Sears

Alan Sears, Esquire
ADF President, CEO, & General Counsel

March 10, 2009

Sometimes, a legal win seems as "big" for the court it comes from as it does for the victory itself.

For many years now, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has combined its long legal reach (it is the largest of all federal appellate courts, encompassing seven western states) with a reputation for Left-leaning decisions often hostile to religious freedom.

However, on February 25th, the 9th Circuit, in a unanimous decision, upheld religious liberty for churches.

The case arose out of an incident in November 2004 when a Montana Baptist church hosted a pro-marriage simulcast and allowed volunteers to circulate petitions to place a marriage amendment on the state ballot.  Advocates of homosexual behavior filed a complaint with the state's commissioner of political practices, accusing the church of violating state law by acting as an "incidental political committee."  ADF attorneys quickly came to the congregation's defense, but a Montana federal district court ruled against the church.

ADF appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit, which reversed it, calling the law's application to the church unconstitutionally vague and a violation of the church's First Amendment rights.

"Churches have the right to speak about the moral issues of our time. That is what churches do," said ADF ally Tim Fox of the Helena law firm of Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman, who litigated the case with co-counsel Dale Schowengerdt of ADF. "This ruling affirms that churches are free to disagree and to participate in public debate."

"Churches shouldn't be penalized for expressing their beliefs," Schowengerdt says.  "They should never be forced to forfeit their free speech rights just because the government decides to enact unconstitutional laws requiring them to remain silent on social issues."

In a remarkable concurring opinion, Judge John T. Noonan wrote:

"An unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered churches. Churches have played an important – no, an essential – part in the democratic life of the United States.... Is it necessary to evoke…historic struggles and the great constitutional benefits won for the country by its churches in order to decide this case of petty bureaucratic harassment?

"It is necessary," he wrote. "The memory of the memorable battles grows cold. The liberals who applaud their outcomes and live in their light forget the motivation that drove the champions of freedom. They approve religious intervention in the political process selectively: it's great when it's on their side. In a secular age, Freedom of Speech is more talismanic than Freedom of Religion. But the latter is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights. It is in terms of this first freedom that this case should be decided."

You can read more of this important ruling in Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena v. Unsworth here.

This is a nation-shaping victory for religious liberty in America, and it's a measure of God's grace that this key win should come not only now – at a time when the freedom of churches is under legal attack as never before all over the country – but from a court that has so often been so hostile to the original intent of those who authored the Constitution.

This case is powerful proof that God is not yet done with our nation…that, by His grace, and with your continuing prayers and financial support, we can and will win the battle to restore and defend religious freedom in America.