Law that singles out religious leaders must go

Senator Patrick Colbeck

Senator Patrick Colbeck

By Sen. Patrick Colbeck
7th Senate District

 

In her April 2 editorial, Detroit Free Press writer Nancy Kaffer featured some misleading claims regarding Senate Bill 269. I would like to set the record straight.

Under current state law, religious leaders who attempt to influence voters regarding elections are subject to a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail. I should note that religious leaders are the ONLY individuals singled out under this section of law. This means that they can go to jail for saying things that you and I or anyone else could say with impunity, and this even applies to their speech outside of the church. Other tax-exempt organizations can and do speak freely on election-related topics without any threat of criminal prosecution.

Misleading claim number 1: SB 269 would not protect the freedom of speech for clergy.

Under current law, all a religious leader needs to do to be guilty of a misdemeanor is to “advise the voter” of religious disapproval on a topic related to an election. While Ms. Kaffer focused upon the election of political candidates in her piece, it is important to note that election guidance can be about much more than electing specific political candidates. Elections often involve moral issues such as abortion, coveting our neighbors’ goods, or gay marriage. Should religious leaders be prohibited from freely professing their religious beliefs on such issues? The First Amendment clearly says no.

Misleading claim number 2: No one in the clergy supports this bill.

While I’m glad Ms. Kaffer is spending time talking to religious leaders about the bill, it’s obvious that she hasn’t conveyed the full context of the bill to these leaders and failed to contact a pastor who actually filed a court case for an injunction on this section of law. In 2012, this filing was initiated by the American Freedom Law Center on behalf of Dr. Levon Yuille, pastor at The Bible Church in Ypsilanti and national director of the National Black Pro-Life Congress. I could have provided her with the names of other religious leaders if she had asked to talk to me before running her story.

Misleading claim number 3: SB 269 would erode the separation of church and state.

The “Separation of Church and State” as referred to by President Thomas Jefferson in a letter to leaders of the Danbury Baptist Church is reflected by the provisions of our First Amendment. Our religious protections in the First Amendment are reflected in the “Establishment Clause” and “Free Exercise Clause.” SB 269 is silent on the former, but unequivocal on the latter. This legislation would remove current provisions of Michigan law that prohibit the free exercise of religion. Clearly, SB 269 would strengthen adherence to our First Amendment, not weaken it.

It is a sad commentary on today’s society that some among us would seek to ignore the clear protections of our First Amendment and punish religious leaders for expressing their sincerely held beliefs. SB 269 would restore an appreciation for our freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Michigan Law. At the federal level, House Resolution 172 was introduced to restore this appreciation by repealing the divisive Johnson Amendment.

Ms. Kaffer made one observation with which I can agree. There are people among us who seek to divide us. We need to focus upon what unites us. I would submit that a great place to start is by honoring the First Amendment of our great social compact known as the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck represents the 7th Senate District, which encompasses the cities of Livonia, Northville, Plymouth and Wayne, as well as the townships of Canton, Northville and Plymouth.

A version of this column appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

Posted in Colbeck-Editorials.