9th Circuit: First Amendment trumps government regulation of church speech

ADF attorneys win appeal in case involving Montana church’s support of marriage
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

SEATTLE — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a ruling Wednesday which had upheld as constitutional a Montana commissioner’s determination that a church violated state law by not registering as an “incidental political committee.”  Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in June 2004 after the Montana commissioner of political practices began investigating the church upon receiving a complaint from a homosexual activist group because the church spoke in support of the state’s constitutional amendment protecting marriage.

“Churches shouldn’t be penalized for expressing their beliefs.  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,” said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt, who litigated the case with co-counsel Tim Fox of the Helena law firm of Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman.

“Churches have the right to speak about the moral issues of our time.  That is what churches do,” said Fox.  “This ruling affirms that churches are free to disagree and to participate in public debate.”

The court ruled on appeal that the political practices law is unconstitutionally vague and that its application in this case violated the church’s First Amendment rights.

In his 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 these 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.  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.”

In October 2006, ADF attorneys appealed the district court’s decision to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the Constitution should never be construed to allow cumbersome reporting requirements in order for churches to exercise their free speech rights.  ADF attorneys argued before the court on Aug. 4, 2008.

  • Opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena v. Unsworth

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith.  Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.