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Montana church can keep mum on donations to gay marriage ban, appeals court rules

The Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena isn't obliged to make campaign finance disclosures because its support for the Montana Marriage Protection Amendment was 'extremely minimal.'

February 26, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Far from the gay-rights battlefields of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where supporters of a ban on gay marriage risk business boycotts and landing on the social D-list, a Baptist church in Montana has scored a quiet victory in its campaign to keep its books and defense-of-marriage backers out of the limelight.

The Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena isn't obliged to make campaign finance disclosures, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, because its support for the Montana Marriage Protection Amendment -- use of some printer ink and a foyer table -- was "extremely minimal." The 2004 state ballot initiative passed by a 2-to-1 margin.

Religious rights groups opposed to according legal status to gay marriage cheered the decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel as a precedent that could protect the identities of donors to other ballot initiatives in the West -- including California's narrow passage in November of Proposition 8, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Much of the financial support for Proposition 8 came from Mormon and Catholic churches, which are now fighting for repeal of a state law requiring that the names of donors be made public.

"This is a very important precedent, and I think it will have far-ranging consequences as it validates that churches play a fundamental role in shaping our democracy and speaking out on important social issues like marriage," said Dale Schowengerdt, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Neither the lead attorney for the groups seeking to overturn Proposition 8, Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, nor legal scholars who monitor sexual orientation law returned phone calls seeking comment from The Times.

But Montana State Solicitor Anthony Johnstone, who argued before the appeals court that the church activity, though minimal, was subject to the disclosure law, said he doubted the ruling would have any broad implications as it reaffirmed each state's right to define what constitutes a significant contribution.

The appeals court unanimously overturned a 2006 Montana federal district court ruling that the church had to make financial disclosures.

The panel was composed of two appointees of President Carter, Circuit Judges Harry Pregerson and William C. Canby Jr., and Senior Circuit Judge John T. Noonan, named to the bench by President Reagan.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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