Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Line between political spending and religious speech getting blurrier

Minnesota has fairly strict disclosure laws, but campaigns for and against the marriage-ban amendment are bringing up questions — and only some have been answered.

Church collections can blur disclosure requirements related to the marriage-ban amendment.

When the main coalition working to defeat the November ballot proposition that would make same-sex marriage unconstitutional here released its first fundraising report over the weekend, the donor list was peppered with familiar names and five-figure contributions.

Including in-kind contributions ranging from snacks for events to office space and salaries, the amount Minnesotans United for All Families raised in 2011 added up to almost $1.5 million.

The group’s 317-page preliminary report [PDF] details donations of $10,000 and more from Pohlads, Daytons, Cowleses, Whitneys, Carlsons, Oppermans and Pillsburys, even larger amounts contributed by advocacy groups and political funds and lots of non-brand-name citizens making contributions of $5-$5,000.

But there are also donations in curious amounts, mostly from churches and other religious institutions. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth gave $434.17, for example. The Minneapolis temple Shir Tikva gave $846, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Duluth $250 and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis $269.

Article continues after advertisement

Are the odd amounts what ended up in the offering basket at a service where gay marriage was discussed? It’s probably not a bad guess.

Disclosures due

Already fuzzy, the line between what is political spending and what is religious speech will get even blurrier today, when disclosures from other groups working to influence voting on the constitutional amendment are due to be filed with state campaign finance officials.

The stakes are high. With few big-buck Minnesota elections truly in play and pushes to legalize or bar gay marriage under way in numerous other states, the amount of money raised and spent trying to determine the outcome of the amendment campaign could hit or even exceed $20 million, estimated David Schultz, a professor at the Hamline University School of Business and a nationally known expert on campaign finance.

Last year, after the GOP-dominated Legislature voted to put the marriage ban on the ballot, an unnamed association asked the state Campaign Finance & Public Disclosure Board 10 carefully worded questions about raising and spending money on the campaign.

The board eventually disclosed that the association supports the constitutional ban and will collect money from religious groups to pay for its efforts to win the election. (To be clear: not the aforementioned congregations, which want the measure to fail.) The association wanted guidance on what its obligations were in terms of public disclosure.

Disclosures help tracking

Tracking campaign funding is enormously complicated, but in Minnesota those who try hard enough can usually map a rough money trail. For example, Minnesotans United’s disclosure lists large contributions of cash and services from local and national political action committees (which are technically not PACs in Minnesota).

At $85,000, Equality Minnesota made the largest donation. The Human Rights Campaign’s Minnesota Family Freedom PAC contributed nearly $44,000 worth of polling.

One of Minnesotans United’s founding groups, Project 515, which works to overturn the 515 Minnesota laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians, coughed up $43,000. The New York-based Freedom to Marry PAC contributed $50,000.

Those groups in turn must disclose their donations and expenditures, which makes it possible to track the overall flow of funds if not the provenance of each individual dollar.

Article continues after advertisement

Earlier this month, in response to the anonymous association’s questions, the state campaign finance board issued a formal opinion [PDF] that imposes more transparency than the association likely desired but less than foes of the proposed amendment would like.

Still room for some anonymity

The bottom line: Churches and other religious groups will have to collect and report information on many of the individuals who contribute to the funds they will spend on the election. But there is still a lot of room for the anonymous passing of the plate.

U.S. courts have said consistently that the right to free speech means that individuals, corporations and groups can raise and spend freely to advocate their positions, if not necessarily individual candidates. This applies to churches, where a preacher may tell the congregation that its doctrine teaches that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, but not whom to vote for in a given race.

If the church wants to contribute to a political fund to pay for, say TV ads or mailings, it can. And it can accept anonymously any donation of $20 or less, or made as part of a general offering that the preacher has not specifically announced as earmarked for the campaign.

The identities and addresses of donors of $20 to $100 must be collected and recorded; donors of more than $100 must also identify their employer or line of work. If the religious organization raises and spends $5,000 or more, it must disclose underlying donors of $100 or more.

A hot issue elsewhere

In other states where public battles over gay marriage have been waged, transparency in spending has been among the hottest issues. Supporters of California’s Proposition 8, for example, fought to keep confidential the names of those who made contributions, arguing that they were being harassed by same-sex marriage supporters. 

Groups working to oppose the amendments rarely have the same concern.

More than $80 million was spent on both Prop 8 campaigns; Mormons from outside the state donated heavily in support and in the late stages of the contest contributed an infusion of cash when it appeared the measure was going to fail.

Minnesota’s campaign finance disclosure laws are stricter than those of many other states, where funding for similar constitutional marriage amendments and for state-level defense of marriage act laws has been hard to track, said Schultz. 

Article continues after advertisement

Unanswered questions

Even with our relatively good transparency laws, the unanswered questions likely to come up in the next nine months are endless, he added.

“The question becomes, what activity becomes lobbying?” Schultz explained. “What if I’m the bishop and I write a letter to my parishioners or a letter to the editor and I talk about how awful gay marriage is? Is that an expenditure? No. Is it lobbying? No.”

But what about mailing a copy of that letter to every Catholic in Minnesota, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars? Probably still not, but it’s hard to argue it’s not an expenditure that will affect the election.

“What’s happening is the lines between a religious organization and a political organization are getting far muddier,” he said. “And religious organizations are always allowed to communicate with their members.”