Judge Sides With Texas Against Churches

HOUSTON (CN) – Texas does not illegally prevent churches from campaigning for the recall of elected officials, a federal judge ruled.
     Two Houston churches, the Houston First Church of God and Joint Heirs Fellowship Church, and Faith Outreach International Center, a San Antonio congregation, sued Texas Ethics Commission Director Natalia Ashley in January.
     The lawsuit challenged parts of the state’s election code that the churches claim illegally prevents them from supporting recall efforts.
     At the time a campaign was under way in San Antonio to recall former Mayor Julian Castro and seven City Council members, for proposing an ordinance the churches say violated their freedoms of religion and speech.
     The churches wanted to work together to support the San Antonio recall, through signature gathering, fund raising and speaking from the pulpit.
     They alleged in an amended complaint that Texas law illegally restricts their political activities because they “cannot be involved in supporting the recall efforts through raising money, donating money, coordinating people’s activities, promoting the recall effort on church websites, [or] allowing petitions to be signed and distributed on church grounds.”
     U.S. District Judge Sim Lake dismissed the lawsuit Tuesday, finding the incorporated churches lacked standing to challenge a law that bans corporations or labor organizations from making political contributions, including circulating petitions, for a recall election.
     Because the churches are free to form a “direct campaign expenditure only committee” and Texas election officials would be barred from prohibiting their contributions to the committee under an injunction imposed by the 5th Circuit, Lake found the churches do not have standing.
     A representative of the churches testified that they are against registering a political committee in any form.
     When explaining to opposing counsel from the witness stand why he did not want to form a political committee, Pastor Charles Flowers of Faith Outreach International Center said: “The freedom of the church to operate under the parameters that was given in scripture should not be in any way impinged or hindered by all of these activities,” court records show.
     Lake did not dismiss all the churches’ claims for lack of standing in the 80-page ruling.
     He found the churches had grounds to challenge a Texas law that requires any political committee that contributes more than $500 to a campaign to appoint a treasurer, and fill out a 3-page treasurer registration form with the Texas Ethics Commission.
     But citing 5th Circuit precedent stating that “any burden created by the treasurer-appointment requirement – essentially filling out and putting a 3-page form that asks for basic information in the mail – appears to be exceedingly minimal,” Lake dismissed the churches’ assertion that the law is a preemptive restraint on speech.
     The churches also argued that a statute that defines a contribution to a political committee as an “indirect transfer of money, goods, services, or any other thing of value” is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
     With a nod to a Texas appellate court ruling that found such contributions could include the circulation of recall petitions on a church’s website, the plaintiff churches posed several hypothetical questions in their complaint.
     “Does an ‘indirect transfer’ include a speech given by a corporation’s chief executive officer? Does it include a speech given by a corporation’s employee? Does it reach a notice posted on a bulletin board in a corporation’s break room that encourages employees to support or oppose a recall effort? … No one knows, because while a ‘direct’ transfer has an obvious meaning, the meaning of ‘indirect’ transfer is unknown,” the complaint states.
     Unimpressed, Lake found the statute was neither vague nor overbroad “because a person of ordinary intelligence can generally understand whether they are making an indirect transfer to a political committee by examining whether they coordinated with that committee with regard to a particular activity.”
     Plaintiffs’ attorney Jerad Najvar said the ruling left in place a law that infringes the free speech rights of churches.
     “The point that bears the most emphasis here is that our clients are churches whose First Amendment rights remain chilled under a law – a ban on corporate contributions to recall efforts – that even the Texas Ethics Commission refused to defend on the merits,” Najvar told Courthouse News in an email.
     “This is a critical issue. Churches are the natural hub of free association on some of the most important political issues of the 21st century, just as they were integral to organization preceding the American Revolution and on various issues of the 20th century, including civil rights. We are evaluating the court’s decision and all of our options, including an appeal,” Najvar said.

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