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Oct 31 2012

Michigan Pastor Files Suit Over Speech Restrictions

An interesting new lawsuit has been filed by Levon Yuille, pastor of The Bible Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan against a state law that forbids ministers from threatening to excommunicate members of their church if they don’t vote for a particular candidate. You can read the complaint here.

You may remember Yuille as one of the plaintiffs who challenged the federal hate crimes law two years ago, a case that was immediately dismissed because the wingnuts who filed the suit could not establish that they were at any risk whatsoever of having the law applied to them (that law requires that you actually commit a crime of violence or against property; it does not apply, as the plaintiffs claimed, to anyone who preaches bigoted things). He’s represented by the American Freedom Law Center, which is a spinoff of the Thomas More Law Center owned by Robert Muise, who worked for the TMLC for many years.

Michigan law says this:

“A priest, pastor, curate, or other officer of a religious society shall not for the purpose of influencing a voter at an election, impose or threaten to impose upon the voter a penalty of excommunication, dismissal, or expulsion, or command or advise the voter, under pain of religious disapproval.”

The law will be defended by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is also a very conservative Christian, but he says the suit is nonsense and that the law has never actually been used:

But Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican who is conservative himself and sympathetic to religious liberty issues, dismisses the lawsuit, saying: “This law has been on the books for more than a century, and we are not aware of any prosecutions advanced during the modern era.”

On Friday, he filed a 20-page response to the lawsuit, saying it has no legitimate basis.

So this state law is just like the federal law that prohibits electioneering by churches — it’s on the books but is almost never enforced.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    Actually, as I understand it, churches are perfectly free to electioneer and endorse candidates, provided they give up their tax exemption.

  2. 2
    dingojack

    Is it a legal requirement for those living in Ypsilanti, Michigan to have surnames beginning with ‘Y’?
    ;) Dingo
    —–
    Out of interest, if an employer threatened to fire you if you didn’t vote for their favoured candidate, would that be acceptable?
    How does this differ?

  3. 3
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    Some people want so much to be persecuted, but without giving up their socially dominant status.

  4. 4
    Modusoperandi

    slc1 “Actually, as I understand it, churches are perfectly free to electioneer and endorse candidates, provided they give up their tax exemption.”
    Pah! You know darn well that they’re allowed to do it and keep their so-called “tax” so-called “exemption”. It’s right there in the Constitution!*

    * This interjection brought to you by People Who Haven’t Read the Constitution for American Values of America

  5. 5
    DaveL

    As repugnant as I find religious electioneering, I have to say this law screams “entanglement”. It’s one thing to say that a non-profit should lose its tax-exempt status when it advances a political agenda, it’s quite another to criminalize clergy for pushing that agenda. The first is a sensible general principle that can (and should) be applied equally to all non-profits, both secular and religious. The second is aimed squarely at religious institutions. There is no right to tax exemptions, but there is a right to political speech.

    Whether it’s ever been enforced or not, I don’t think this law should stand. If it isn’t struck down by the courts (and due to issues of standing, it very well might not be), it should be repealed by the legislature.

  6. 6
    jamessweet

    Out of interest, if an employer threatened to fire you if you didn’t vote for their favoured candidate, would that be acceptable?

    That’s an interesting and provocative question. Well, in a slightly different context it is: In James Sweet’s Perfect World, pastors would be allowed to do this but churches would not get an automatic tax exemption, and doing any sort of political advocacy would plainly disqualify them. (And in fact they’d only qualify if they could show they were truly non-profit and did a significant amount of charitable work, i.e. just like any other non-profit)

    But, in that Perfect World, I have a little trouble answering your question here. My inclination is to say that we afford special protections for employment — recognizing the gravity of its importance for quality of life — which we do not necessarily apply to private clubs. It’s the same reason you can have a men-only country club but not have a men-only IT company.

    Nevertheless, it’s an interesting question, and I wish I had more time to explore it.

    In the present case, I consider it a moot point, since a) if churches want their automatic super special tax exemption, they should fucking play ball; and b) in real life they can do whatever the fuck they want and still get their unfair magic tax exemption anyway, laws like this be damned.

  7. 7
    Michael Heath

    My disdain for Attorney General Bill Schuette only grows with his position here. Asserting a law goes effectively unenforced law is not a principled defense for an AG. How is a citizen to know which laws he must abide by and which to ignore? Either defend the law or seek to edit or delete it.

    It would be interesting to see arguments on the constitutionality of this law. It seems to me, very humbly, it should be struck down by the courts. It’s government encroachment which violates the rights of association. Where this is related to my opposition to speech prohibitions on certain churches when it comes to the prohibition of their advocating for or against elected officials while their church enjoys its tax-exempt status. My remedy for this though is to simultaneously strike down the speech restriction law and all churches tax-exempt status.

  8. 8
    frankb

    The person being threatened by Levon Yuille can cast hir secret ballot for whomever, but should have the right to say who they voted for. Like others have said, it’s a question of tax exempt status.

  9. 9
    slc1

    Re MH @ #7

    My remedy for this though is to simultaneously strike down the speech restriction law and all churches tax-exempt status.

    Agreed, but the blogs resident physics professor at Christopher Newport Un. might raise some objections.

  10. 10
    brucegee1962

    My understanding was that churches had the right to pretty much kick out people for any reason whatsoever. Being gay, being straight, being female, whatever. Likewise, in many demoninations the congregants can kick out their pastor if they don’t like him or her. And when there’s an even split between factions in a church, then everybody gets to go to court for a messy property battle over who gets to keep the church building.

    All the schisms are one of the many things that make protestants so fun to watch.

  11. 11
    slc1

    Re brucegee1962 @ #10

    A textbook example occurred in Virginia where two Episcopal churches were hijacked by anti-gay activists who withdrew the churches from the Virginia Episcopal diocese. The case went to court and the decision was that the diocese owned the church properties, not the congregations.

  12. 12
    rturpin

    James, it’s not just that we recognize employment as being especially important, but that we also recognize the employer-employee relationship as primarily being about business, and hence reasonably constrained by professional rules and mores. Religious practice, in contrast, is carved out as something not to be so constrained.

  13. 13
    joeina2

    MH#7 – I couldn’t agree more. Laws should be enforced or they should be removed. I also think some degree of eletioneering is acceptable – in that pastors or other church officials should be allowed to preach values, but not candidates or propositions. “You must, as a Christian, vote pro-life” but never “You must vote McTheocrat, as he is pro-life!”

    I personally don’t have a problem with them threatening excommunication, and I think the law should be removed. Pull out the small foundation holding such churches together, and let them fracture and disorganize. Wingnut-on-wingnut hate should be encouraged, and hope they disorganize politically. I say this pragmatically, as the repealing of Tax exempt status of churches who do not predominately do charity work is a ways off.

  14. 14
    eric

    Heath:

    My disdain for Attorney General Bill Schuette only grows with his position here. Asserting a law goes effectively unenforced law is not a principled defense for an AG.

    IANAL but I think the legal argument is more like: there has been no harm to the pastor, and there is no credible threat of imminent future harm or that his constitutional rights will be violated, so he has no justification for the suit. I think its pretty typical of the US court system to deny suits when the suer is basically speculating that they might suffer some harm in the future. Which is what this priest is really doing.

    If the priest can bring a constitutional argment, he has a better shot of it going forward, because AFAIK those are the only times the courts are willing to take cases having to do with potential (speculative) future harm.

    How is a citizen to know which laws he must abide by and which to ignore? Either defend the law or seek to edit or delete it.

    I agree that the legislature should do the latter. But this is the AG. It is not in his power to edit/delete the law from the books. He simply has to perform his governmental role the best way he can, and hope that legislators do the same.

  15. 15
    raven

    Levon Yuille, pastor of The Bible Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan against a state law that forbids ministers from threatening to excommunicate members of their church if they don’t vote for a particular candidate.

    The vote is secret by law.

    Unless the minister demands to see the ballots of the members. Which can easily happen if they vote early, by mail, or absentee ballot, which almost all states have these days. In that case, in my state it is a felony to coerce or sign another person’s ballot.

    Being excommunicated by Levon Yuille would be like being thrown out of the lowest bar in the worst part of town anyway. Or like being thrown out of the county jail.

  16. 16
    raven

    IANAL, but this lawsuit might fail based on the christofascist minister’s standing. He hasn’t been charged with a crime so he doesn’t have any reason to go to court.

    Excommunication really?

    The Dark Ages are over except in fundie xian’s heads.

    My old church probably has an excomunication rule but I’ve never heard it being used. Probably the last one was a century or two ago.

    AFAICT, I’m still a member in good standing.

  17. 17
    dingojack

    so – (forgive my slightly befuddled state) what you are saying is if a men only (or women only, or right-handed and ‘innie’ navel only) club advocates one will vote for candidate X on pain of expulsion that’s fine, but if an institution that gets tax breaks (effectively subsidised by the taxpayers) and is open to the public (that is they can enter at will) says the same thing that’s beyond the pale – or something like that.
    Confusedly, Dingo
    —–
    PS: I’m sorry if I seem kind of dense, I’m just trying to see the edges of problem.

  18. 18
    raven

    Likewise, in many demoninations the congregants can kick out their pastor if they don’t like him or her.

    In my old Protestant church, which is typical, the congregation employs the minister. They can hire or fire them. And they vote all the time on every little detail. It’s bottom up in reaction to the top down of their forerunner, the Catholic church.

    And when there’s an even split between factions in a church, then everybody gets to go to court for a messy property battle over who gets to keep the church building.

    They have had so many schisms which happen once every year or two that they have it down to a common procedure. They rarely end up in court.

    All the schisms are one of the many things that make protestants so fun to watch.

    It’s part of being a Protestant. Chances are very high that Levon Yuille is a schismatic from one cult or another. He doesn’t come across as anyone who wants to follow when they can lead an Oogedy Boogedy cult themselves.

    Chances are high that his church also has problems with child sexual abuse. This happens in all authoritarian churches, RCC, JW’s, Mormons, SDA’s, and fundie xians.

  19. 19
    robertbaden

    Why should ANYONE be allowed to pressure a voter?

  20. 20
    heddle

    slc1,

    Agreed, but the blogs resident physics professor at Christopher Newport Un. might raise some objections.

    You must have never read any post I wrote on the subject. A summary:

    1) I am favor of removing the tax breaks/deductions for churches, non profits and all charities–we should not be subsidizing each others pet causes. (Also in favor of losing the mortgage deduction–apartment dwellers should not be subsidizing home owners.)

    2) Given (1), it is, however, theoretically possible that if you assessed a tax liability of, say, $10k against our church that the poor in our neighborhood would receive $10k less food/clothing etc. Because I seriously doubt that that $10k is going to wend its way through governments agencies and show up back in our neighborhood–or if $10k does show up, the actual cost will be much higher.

    That is not a plea to maintain the tax exemption, just a reality check. I hope that it goes away for reasons stated.

  21. 21
    W. Kevin Vicklund

    Is it a legal requirement for those living in Ypsilanti, Michigan to have surnames beginning with ‘Y’?

    *looks at voter registration card*

    No…

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