Montana lawmakers heard arguments Monday on a proposal to exempt churches from state campaign disclosure laws. 

Senate Bill 162 would excuse all religious organizations from having to report the costs of political contributions and election communications made during any election to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, told the Senate State Administration Committee that his bill tied back to a 15-year-old legal case involving the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church. The church had been found in violation of state campaign finance law in 2004 after endorsing a constitutional initiative to ban gay marriage, and the violation was upheld by a federal judge. In 2009, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, referring to the state’s actions as “petty bureaucratic harassment.” 

Alan Doane Monday testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Montana Department of Justice, explaining that Attorney General Austin Knudsen believes it would be hard for the state to again defend such a lawsuit. Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, spoke at length about the historic backdrop to SB 162. He said similar laws passed the Montana Legislature twice in the years after the 9th Circuit’s ruling, only to be vetoed both times.

“We’re just hoping the third time’s the charm,” he added.

Also speaking in favor of the bill were several members of the Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church congregation, including senior pastor Chad Hesler. Hesler said the legal dispute stemming from the church’s messaging on gay marriage had constituted an attempt to “thwart the God-given role of the church” in speaking out against government intrusion.

“SB 162 follows the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson to limit the intrusion of government into the well-being of mankind, which is the essential role of religion,” Hesler said.

Several organizations opposing Howard’s bill expressed concerns that granting churches such a broad exemption would undermine the spirit of transparency in political discourse. Liz Moore, executive director of the Montana Nonprofit Association, noted that her group represents a number of charitable religious organizations. When paired with the U.S. tax code, she said, SB 162 would have the effect of giving churches a tax deduction for money spent on political endorsements. Moore also noted that religious organizations are currently able to form a separate 501(c)(4), or issue advocacy group, through which to collect and distribute political money. Such groups are not required to disclose their donors and are commonly known as “dark money” organizations.

Jaime MacNaughton, chief legal counsel for the Commissioner of Political Practices office, testified that SB 162 would raise considerable logistical challenges for her staff. For starters, she said, the bill does not offer a clear definition of what qualifies as a religious organization, and leaves it up to the COPP to determine what constitutes a “burden” on such an organization’s beliefs and practices.

“I don’t think that’s an area we want our office or state government regulating in,” MacNaughton said.

The committee did not take action on SB 162 after hearing testimony Monday.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.