Montana Baptist Church Continuing to Impact the Law

March 24, 2010 by

Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church is a normal church in Helena, Montana, that made a very abnormal impact on the law involving a pastor’s right to speak Truth from the pulpit. 

Recently we represented Canyon Ferry Road Church in a case against the state of Montana.  Montana had required the church to actually become (and operate as) a political committee simply because the pastor encouraged his congregation from the pulpit to support the local marriage amendment and allowed volunteers to place petition sheets in the back of his church.  We sued Montana on behalf of the church, arguing that the laws violated the First Amendment.

After several years of intense litigation, the Ninth Circuit ruled, unanimously, in favor of the church.  The result was that churches up and down the Western seaboard could not be subject to election laws like Montana’s.  The case has also been used outside the Ninth Circuit to persuade courts that churches and people of faith are entitled to broad constitutional protections to speak on the pressing social and moral issues of the day. 

And the case continues to pay dividends.  Harvard Law Review recently highlighted the case in the most recent edition of its journal.  They note that a private party who opposed the marriage amendment instigated the state’s investigation of the church.  That group then sent threat letters to hundreds of conservative churches across the state, saying that they would file a complaint against any other church that supported the marriage amendment like Canyon Ferry did. 

It was pure political bullying, backed by the substantial resources of the state.  Harvard Law Review recognized what a constitutional hazard that poses for churches and other groups.  They called on legislatures to rid their statutes of laws that allow third parties to file complaints based on constitutionally protected speech. 

We also understand that another Law Review article is due this spring from Notre Dame that focuses on the case.  It’s a reminder of what a difference one church can make.  Because of a small Baptist church’s faithful commitment to fight for its rights, the law changed and all believers benefited.

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Government quits trying to run Bible schools

March 23, 2010 by

Government shouldn’t try to tell private Christian educators how to teach Christianity.

                In a decidedly unconstitutional turn of events in April of 2009, the state of Wyoming threatened to shut down a small but well-established Bible school because the school’s Bible classes weren’t state approved.  That the First Amendment prohibits government attempts to control religious education wasn’t enough to stop the state’s actions—at least not initially.  

                The school, Frontier School of the Bible, is a purely religious non-profit technical school that was founded over 40 years ago in LaGrange, Wyoming.  The school’s curriculum is solely aimed at preparing its students for Christian ministry, and the few non-Bible classes taught at the school—like English—are provided only because they aid effective teaching and interpretation of the Bible.  The school has over 1,600 alumni, most serving as missionaries, pastors, and youth ministers throughout the world.  Frontier exists for one purpose: preparing Christian leaders to teach others about God.

                But the state of Wyoming believed that the quality of Frontier’s Christian education might not be good enough for government work, so its education department sent the school a letter last April demanding that it either become approved by the state or close its doors.  And approval by the state didn’t present an attractive choice.  One way to become state-approved would have accreditation.  But for a school that didn’t pay salaries to its faculty or staff (instead, they all have to obtain voluntary financial support, much like missionaries do) in order to keep costs low so ministry-oriented students weren’t crushed by debt at graduation, the sky-high costs of accreditation wasn’t feasible.  Plus, other similar non-accredited Bible schools that have sought accreditation report that it often requires jettisoning the purely Bible-based teaching that was the sole reason for Frontier’s existence.

                The school’s second route to state approval was even worse: getting a state license.  But this would require ceasing to discriminate based on religion both in admitting students to the school and in hiring teachers for its Bible classes.  Nothing could be more destructive to school’s Christian identity and purpose than having its Christian curriculum taught by non-Christians to non-Christians.

                Thankfully, after being challenged on the many constitutional infirmities of demand to the school, the state made the right decisions to protect religious liberty, granting Frontier an interim exemption from the state’s regulations while legislators crafted a fix to the statute.  That fix was signed into law just this month.

                But what if Wyoming hadn’t made the right decision?  It would have set the State up as in authority over the Church to determine the content of theological instruction.  And “setting standards for a religious education is a religious exercise for which the State lacks not only authority but also competence.”  HEB Ministries v. Texas Higher Educ. Coordinating Board, 235 S.W.3d 627, 643 (Tex. 2007).  That is, having a bureaucrat determine the content of a quality Christian curriculum is like having your single neighbor tell you how to raise your children: not only does he not have any right to tell you what to do, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 

Christian education is too important to be left in the hands of government.

Is it Biblical for Christians to go to Court?

March 22, 2010 by

At ADF, our clients – especially pastors and churches – often question whether it is biblical for Christians to sue the government to protect their constitutional rights. This question stems from passages like Romans 13:1-7, which commands us to “submit [our]selves to the governing authorities,” because those authorities are established by God. Would a lawsuit against the government violate this command?

Perhaps the best way of answering this is to consider who the “government authorities” are. Our system of government features a series of authorities at different levels (e.g. local, state, and federal) and of different types (e.g. executive, legislative, and judicial). Yet one authority in our system stands above all others: the United States Constitution. By using the judicial system to insist that government officials follow the Constitution, a church is not resisting authority. It is simply using the established system of government to appeal to a higher authority.

Apostle Paul, the author of Romans, frequently appealed to higher authorities to protect his rights. For example, he invoked his Roman citizenship and Roman law to force magistrates to personally release him from a Philippi prison after he had been beaten illegally (Acts 16:16-40).  He later invoked his Roman citizenship in Jerusalem to prevent a centurion from flogging him (Acts 22:22-29). Then he defended himself against charges in a Roman court and ultimately appealed to Caesar (Acts 24:10-25:12). Clearly, Paul had no trouble appealing to higher authorities when government officials overstepped their bounds or did not do justice.

So invoking a higher authority is not the same as resisting authority. A lawsuit is neither revolution nor rebellion. It is simply a way to insist that government officials obey a higher legal authority. And by doing so, it helps uphold the rule of law, preserves our Constitution, and ensures that we all can continue to enjoy our first liberty – religious freedom.

If you’re interested in exploring these issues in more depth, ADF attorney Travis Barham has written an excellent essay that I recommend to any Christians who are faced with the possibility of going to court to protect their constitutional rights.

Government Control of Church Schools

March 19, 2010 by

A church school in Redford, Michigan was dealt a blow to its independence from government control by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 9, 2010.  Hosanna-Tabor is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Misosouri Synod, and operates a church and school.  All the school teachers lead weekly chapel services, teach a 30 minute religion class four days per week, lead prayer three times per day, and teach a morning devotional.  In fact, most of the teachers are commissioned as ministers.

Courts have long recognized the “ministerial exception,” which prohibits courts from getting involved in the relationship between a religious organization and its ministers.  This independence (often referred to as “church autonomy”) from government control is considered vital because ministers are recognized by the law as the lifeblood of the church.

While the Sixth Circuit upheld this principle in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, it failed to apply it because it found the teacher in question was not really a minister.  At bottom, the court said she wasn’t a minister because she spent 6 hours a day teaching secular subjects like math, social studies, and music.  Only an hour or so was spent on exclusively religious instruction.

The court failed to recognize something even Christians struggle with – our biblical worldview and Christian principles affect all aspects of our lives.  That certainly includes how we teach our children to interpret music, and interact socially.  It even applies to math, as demonstrated by the great mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton (even though his Christian views certainly were not orthodox).

Apparently, Hossana-Tabor should have been clearer about how its teachers communicate the church’s theology in all subjects.  Hopefully it can do so at trial, since the case has been sent back down to the lower court.

Oasis of Truth: Banning Bible Study in Your Backyard

March 18, 2010 by

Banning Bible Study in Your Backyard


Does your neighborhood need to be protected from dangerous small-group Bible studies?

Oasis of Truth Church in Gilbert, Arizona, has seven adult members.  It met on a rotating basis in the homes of its members for a few hours of church services and a weekly Bible study.  The maximum number of people who ever attended Oasis’ meetings was 15; even then, only one car had to be parked in the street to accommodate the vehicles of the attendees.

As is painfully obvious from this description, the church’s meetings in homes were a threat to the community and had to be stopped.  And stopped they were when, just a few months after it started meeting, a Gilbert zone enforcement officer issued a cease-and-desist order to Oasis.  And why were the meetings stopped?  Because they were too big?  Meeting too often?  Being too loud or attracting too much traffic?  Generating irate community complaints?

Try none of the above.  Rather, the church was targeted simply because it was a church.  Nothing more.  As the Town later acknowledged in an official zoning interpretation, it didn’t matter if the meeting in question was a one-time get-together of two people for a quiet prayer time.  If the meeting was a church meeting, it was banned.

By contrast, other types of meetings—like Cub Scouts, business parties, or Monday Night Football gatherings—were all acceptable.  In fact, some day cares are specifically allowed by the zoning code to be run from homes.

Such blatant discrimination against churches is unconstitutional.  Targeting churches for disfavor simultaneously violates the Free Exercise Clause, since it unfairly limits religious liberty, and the Establishment Clause, since it prefers non-religious gatherings to religious ones.

Of course, municipalities can make some reasonable regulations on how homes are used, preventing your next door neighbor’s duplex from being turned into a shopping mall or a convention center.  But such regulations are only legitimate as long as they are focused on concerns like traffic, parking, building code safety, and the like.  Where the law instead singles out religious activities for discrimination, it leaves behind all pretense of legitimate regulation and becomes a tool to silence the church.

Fortunately, Gilbert is fixing the problem.  It sent high-ranking officials to church services to apologize and is working with the church now to protect religious liberty.  Hopefully, Gilbert’s approach to fixing the problem can be a model to other municipalities on how never to have a problem in the first place.

Rep. Michele Bachmann: “Repeal the Johnson Amendment”

March 12, 2010 by

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a radical leftist organization bent on intimidating pastors and churches into silence is making noise about a recent radio appearance by Rep. Michele Bachmann.  Rep. Bachmann came right out and said what most pastors believe when she stated that Congress should repeal the Johnson Amendment.

Here is what she said, as reported by the Minnesota Independent, that has AU so worked up:

“The reason why clergy are afraid to be involved is because of an amendment that former President Lyndon Johnson passed when he was a senator from Texas… that stops 501(3)c [sic] organizations from saying anything political from the pulpit. Now, churches can be political from the pulpit. They can talk about issues all they want. What they can’t do is endorse a candidate from the pulpit. But the ACLU has been all over the backs of churches… Christian and Jews and people of faith are not second class citizens… but these radical leftist organizations have been intimidating Christians for so long and pastors don’t generally now that they do have the right to speak out from the pulpit. Congress should repeal that amendment from Lyndon Johnson… We need to repeal that and give Christians back their first amendment rights to free speech in the church.”

I say a hearty “Amen” to Rep. Bachmann’s comments!  The Johnson Amendment has been used for far too long as a tool of intimidation and coercion against churches and pastors.  That is why ADF launched the Pulpit Initiative – to allow pastors to speak freely from their pulpits without fear of intimidation and censorship from the government, or anyone else for that matter.

Click here to sign up for the Pulpit Initiative.  Stand with ADF and hundreds of other pastors across the nation to regain the right of pastors to speak freely.

Are Churches More Dangerous than the KKK?

March 12, 2010 by

Silly question, right? Not to one California church, who was barred from using a public library meeting room, even though the room was open to all other private community groups. The County Librarian even acknowledged that groups like the Ku Klux Klan were free to use the facility. But church services were forbidden.

It may be tempting to dismiss this as one isolated incident. But the sad reality is that these types of policies are prevalent around the country. ADF has successfully represented dozens of churches in similar cases. And we have uncovered hundreds of community centers, libraries, schools, and other public facilities around the country that rent to community groups, but blatantly discriminate against religious groups by refusing to rent to them or by charging them higher rental rates.

These policies make no sense. After all, social science bears out what many of us see as self-evident: churches offer valuable contributions to the community such as social services, education, increased volunteering, and reduced crime. (An Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s paper concisely summarizes many of these studies.) And, especially in this time of economic uncertainty, local governments would surely benefit from the additional revenue it would receive by renting otherwise unused facilities to churches.

So why is there so much hostility toward churches? Public officials often seem to have a Pavlovian-like reaction against anything religious, claiming that the so-called “separation of church and state” prevents churches from ever stepping foot in a public facility. But that’s not what the Constitution actually says. In fact, since 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in four different cases that the First Amendment gives religious groups the right to have equal access to a public forum that other community groups are allowed to use.

Fortunately for the California church, a federal court recognized this precedent and struck down the library policy as unconstitutional, opening the door for churches to have equal access to its meeting rooms. But it took five years of litigation to get there. Other cases have taken much longer. A school district in New York, for example, has been in court for 15 years doggedly fighting to keep churches from meeting in vacant school buildings on weekends.

ADF, who represents both churches, will continue to stand up for the time-honored principle that the First Amendment protects the right of all religious groups to equal access.

Should Churches be Taxed?

March 10, 2010 by

The Catholic League reported on March 5th that the Kansas House of Representatives was considering a bill that would remove the sales tax exemption for churches.  It is unclear at this point whether the bill has any chance of success, but it raises an issue that has been assumed, but not debated much, in American history – should churches be taxed at all?

Jesus made it very clear that as citizens of whatever country we live in, we should pay our taxes.  But the question of whether churches should be taxed at all is a different question altogether.  And it is one that judicial case law has not discussed much.

It has been assumed from the foundation of our country that churches should remain tax exempt.  In 1890, Kentucky State Representative Whittaker summed up the sentiment nicely when he said, “Let an untaxed Gospel be preached, in an untaxed church house, from an untaxed pulpit; let the emblem of a crucified, but risen Christ be administered from an untaxed altar, and, as the spire points heavenward, . . . let it stand forever untaxed.”

In 1970, the United States Supreme Court noted the “undeviating acceptance given religious tax exemptions from our earliest days as a Nation.  Rarely if ever has this Court considered the constitutionality of a practice for which the historical support is so overwhelming.”  Walz v. Tax Comm’n of City of New York, 397 U.S. 664, 681 (1970) (Brennan, J. concurring).  The very next year, the Supreme Court noted that nontaxation of churches is undergirded by “more than 200 years of virtually universal practice imbedded in our colonial experience and continuing into the present.”  Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 624 (1971).

Churches, as nonprofit organizations, are exempt from taxes not because of the public benefits that churches provide, although that is also a reason for exemption.  Rather, it is their very existence as non-profit entities that justifies church tax exemption.  Taxation naturally applies to profit-makers, the generators of revenue upon which government depends.  In his book, Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes, Dean Kelley makes a powerful argument.  He states, “Other entities, which are not in the wealth producing category to begin with [such as churches], do not need to explain why they are not taxed any more than do the birds of the air or the rivers that flow to the sea. . . .  [Taxation] would be pointless, since they are not in any meaningful sense producers of wealth.”

In fact, taxing such nonprofits discourages their existence and amounts to double taxation.  All citizens, whether or not involved in a church or other nonprofit, are taxed on their individual incomes.  As Kelley notes again, “To tax them again for participation in voluntary organizations from which they derive no monetary gain would be ‘double taxation’ indeed, and would effectively serve to discourage them from devoting time, money, and energy to organizations which contribute to the up building of the fabric of democracy.”

There are many more reasons why churches should not pay taxes, but just these few demonstrate that the Kansas legislature should never let this bill see the light of day.

Let the Church Bells Ring

March 8, 2010 by

ADF has been representing Bishop Rick Painter, pastor of Christ the King Church in Phoenix, Arizona.  The City of Phoenix convicted Bishop Painter for violating the City’s noise ordinance and sentenced him to 10 days in jail (suspended) and 3 years of probation.  The City claimed that the church bell noises were unnecessary and disturbing even though the noise ordinance allows louder noises than the church bells – things like ice cream trucks and loudspeakers.

And if convicting Bishop Painter for ringing church bells was not enough, the City of Phoenix threatened St. Mark Roman Catholic Parish with prosecution for ringing its church bells.  Shortly after Bishop Painter’s conviction, two Phoenix police officers and two City Prosecutors visited St. mark in response to a neighbor’s complaint.

ADF appealed Bishop Painter’s conviction and also filed a federal lawsuit against the City on behalf of a group of churches, including Christ the King Cathedral, St. Mark, and First Christian Church in Phoenix.  On March 4th, 2010 the federal court issued an injunction prohibiting the City from enforcing its noise ordinance against “sound generated in the course of religious expression.”

This is a great win.  No pastor should ever be sentenced to jail for ringing church bells.  Churches have been ringing church bells for centuries and, as far as we can tell, this is the first time a pastor has ever been sentenced to jail for ringing church bells.

The federal court recognized the absurdity of the City’s actions and recognized that the noise ordinance was unconstitutional.  Let the church bells ring!

How Government Got Its Foot in the Door of our Churches

March 3, 2010 by

If asked whether their pastor is free to preach however he feels led to preach, many would say, “of course!”  And some might even view the question itself as ridiculous.

But perception is not always reality, and one subtle but potent threat to the freedom of the pulpit has been quietly infiltrating America’s churches since 1954. That was the year Lyndon Johnson – then a powerful senator from Texas facing a tough re-election battle – suddenly found his road to Capitol Hill effectively blocked when two influential private nonprofits distributed thousands of pieces of literature against his re-election bid.

To Johnson’s mind, the impact of that literature had to be neutralized, and he soon hit on an ingenious plan to silence his opponents. On July 2, 1954, he stepped out on the floor of the Senate to propose an amendment to a pending tax overhaul bill. His amendment (which included churches and Christian ministries within its reach) prohibited nonprofits from supporting or opposing candidates for office.  It passed unanimously, without objection or debate.

Pulpit

Johnson’s amendment did more than stop the opposition of these two non-profits in their tracks. It turned 200 years of American history on its ear. For the first time, the federal government was actually authorized to punish a pastor for preaching about candidates during an election season.

Now, whether you believe that your pastor should preach about candidates during election season or not, the point is that it’s not in the interest of religious freedom to allow the government to make that decision for us.  Nor is it the job of the state to decide how closely a church can follow the mandates of Scripture in governing itself and fulfilling the Great Commission.

If today the government can tell your pastor not to apply Scriptures to candidates and election issues, then tomorrow it will be able to restrict his Bible-based speech on other, non-election issues – like homosexual behavior – that the government decides it has an interest in protecting.  After that, it won’t be long before government will move to restrict the speech of your pastor on even the very basics of the faith.

That’s why ADF launched the Pulpit Initiative, where we are looking to kick the government out of the pulpits of America and protect a pastor’s right to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing any government censorship or control.  If you are a pastor, let us know if you are interested in the Pulpit Initiative.  It’s time we stand together to reclaim the freedom of the pulpit in America.