By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A church has sued the state political practices commissioner after she launched an investigation into whether it became a political organization by urging members to support a proposed ballot measure banning same-sex marriage.
Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church of East Helena contends in the federal suit filed Monday in Helena that the campaign finance laws at issue are unconstitutional.
Applying the laws to churches stifles free speech and religious freedom, and the investigation has discouraged churches from collecting petition signatures to put the proposed ban on the November ballot, the suit claims.
''Montana's election law regarding campaign finance and practice is so vague it allows the state to chill free speech and religious expression rights of churches that publicly take a position on the subject of marriage,'' said Benjamin Bull, chief attorney for Alliance Defense Fund.
The national organization filed the lawsuit on behalf of the church against Commissioner Linda Vaughey. She said today she had not seen the suit and declined comment.
The suit is in response to a complaint filed with Vaughey last month, alleging a May 23 church event urging support for Constitutional Initiative 96 transformed the church into a political committee. The church failed to register as such with Vaughey's office and to report spending associated with the event, the complaint stated.
It was filed by Montanans for Families and Fairness, an organization formed to oppose the same-sex marriage ban in CI-96. The group includes the Montana Human Rights Network, Intermountain Planned Parenthood and the gay advocacy group called PRIDE.
The event at the church was a national simulcast of religious leaders talking about marriage and stressing the traditional belief that marriage is reserved for a man and woman. CI-96 petitions were available for signing at the urging of Pastor Berthold Stumberg.
The suit said designating the church as an ''incidental political committee'' would require disclosure of details about internal church operations, donors, members and other private matters.
Vaughey's investigation has discouraged this and other churches in Montana from advocating support for CI-96, according to the complaint.
The related campaign laws are too broad and vague, and give Vaughey ''unbridled discretion to investigate and penalize churches because of their speech,'' it stated.
Also, the laws give Vaughey little guidance to determine which groups are subject to reporting requirements for political committee, according to the litigation.