The Montana Legislature is currently considering a bill called Senate Bill 289, known by its supporters as the “dark money” bill. Its purpose is to create greater public transparency in political speech and donations.
While transparency is a goal we also support, this particular method contains a dark risk to Montana churches that must be resisted.
If SB 289 were to become law, Montana houses of worship would be at risk of having to publicize every single tithe they receive. We would have to post on the Internet the name of the giver, their home address, where they work, and more.
How is that risk created? Let’s explain.
The bill is designed to regulate political committees. However, it also regulates something called an “incidental committee,” which is basically a committee that was never intended to be political, but became so by making an expense that’s political.
Here’s the actual definition: “Incidental committee” means a political committee that is not specifically organized or operating for the primary purpose of supporting or opposing candidates or ballot issues but that may incidentally become a political committee by receiving a contribution or making an expenditure.
How does that apply to us? Imagine this scenario: Same-sex marriage is on the ballot as an initiative, referendum, or constitutional amendment. In a church somewhere in Montana, a pastor happens to preach from Matthew 19, telling his congregation what Jesus said about marriage and gender.
The pastor’s messsage that day would say that marriage is between a man and a woman. The initiative would say that marriage is between any two genders.
That makes the sermon an election-related message. And of course, because the pastor is probably drawing a salary when he delivered that message, that would be an election-related expenditure. And the law says that any organization that was never intended to be political but makes an election-related expenditure becomes polititcal.
Your church just became a political committee.
And SB 289 requires that any political committee that makes an expenditure related to a ballot issue must report the name, home address and workplace of everyone who donates more than $35 to that committee.
Your tithe just went on the Internet for all the world to see.
Lest anyone think this isn’t a realistic scenario, it has already happened once in Montana. The Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church was hauled into court by the commissioner of political practices, claiming that they were a political committee and required to report donations. Thank God, that decision protected the first amendment rights of the church. But this bill would undo that decision.
And make no mistake, the scenario could easily arise again. This Legislature has already seen at least one legislative effort to put the issue of same sex marriage back in front of the people for a vote.
In its current form, Senate Bill 289 violates the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Moreover, it would also violate the word of God about how tithers should approach their giving:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. — Matthew 6:1-4
We urge Montana families to contact the House Business and Labor Committee and ask them to oppose this terrible bill that could make public everyone’s tithes to their church.