Posts Tagged ‘First Amendment’

Montana Baptist Church Continuing to Impact the Law

March 24, 2010

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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Oasis of Truth: Banning Bible Study in Your Backyard

March 18, 2010

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.