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Bill would end penalty for religious leaders trying to swing congregants’ votes

Apr 4, 2017

In the U.S., the separation of church and state sounds like a clear division. But sometimes that line is blurrier than you might think. There’s a law on the books in Michigan that makes it a misdemeanor to encourage people to vote a certain way by offering them inducements or by threatening them with punishments. For example, your employer can’t fire you because of your vote. The law was enacted in the 1950s and one section specifically prohibits religious leaders from threatening parishioners with excommunication over politics.

That’s the part Michigan State Senator Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, wants to remove. He joined Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou on Morning Edition.

Colbeck began by pointing out that the law also has another section "that says 'or command or advise the voter under pain of religious disapproval.' That’s a little bit different measure than the pain of excommunication, if you will."

Doug Tribou: Well, let’s start with what got your attention about this law and what stood out to you about it when you first became aware of it.

PC: Well, first of all a good friend of mine, Pastor Reverend Levon Yuille out at the Bible Church in Ypsilanti brought it to my attention back in I think 2012. He highlighted that it’s currently a misdemeanor for him to go off and talk to members of his congregation about issues that are related to topics relevant to the election. And if he’s concerned about the sanctity of his congregation and people of faith actually following the dictates of the Bible, because his church is called the Bible Church, and somebody’s not willing to follow the Bible then there should be no compulsion to have that person as part of your assembly.

So, from my perspective, you know that smacks of so many different infringements upon the First Amendment, which is freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and frankly freedom of assembly. So, it’s kind of the trifecta and this law never should’ve been passed, never should’ve been put on the books if people are paying attention to the Constitution.

DT: Senator, do you know of any cases where religious leaders in Michigan have been fined for this. Has the law ever been applied?

PC: No. It’s one of those dangling threats just like the Johnson Amendment is at the federal level in regards to tax exempt status. The state statute that we’re talking about repealing in Senate Bill 269 deals with it being a misdemeanor if a pastor speaks out on an election-related issue and subjects the members of the congregation to religious disapproval. That’s a misdemeanor. It essentially sets it up as a crime.

In regards to the Johnson Amendment, which is at the federal level, what’s been proposed by President Trump and members of the legislature is to remove a threat that says that if you talk about political subjects in a religious institution you will lose your tax-exempt status.

DT: Some people might view this provision that you’re trying to have removed from state law as another way of keeping voters from receiving pressure from people who are in positions of authority in our communities and why not just leave that in place? I could see some of listeners asking that question.

PC: Well it’s interesting to note that religious leaders are the only tax-exempt organization that are singled out under the statute. So you can have a union, for example. And so I’d be interested in seeing that we have a level playing field on it, but as the law stands right now it is targeted specifically at religious leaders and I think there’s a reason for that.

DT: And that’s an interesting example. A lot of members of our audience are members of unions of various forms and we frequently hear unions endorse a political candidate. How do you see that as a difference, or do you see that as a same sort of issue that we’re talking about here?   

PC: Fundamentally, we shouldn’t be silencing this freedom of speech. If the union wants to go off and endorse it, fine. We’re a "right to work" state now. If people no longer want to have the union representing them because their views don’t reflect their views then they don’t put their money towards that organization. Same thing goes for a congregation. If you don’t like what’s being talked about at the pulpit, then you walk out of the assembly. I think we’ve got to be careful about these infringements of these basic rights because once we lose those rights we don’t get them back.