BILLINGS — The state has acknowledged that a century-old law limiting the speech of clergy regarding candidates and ballot issues is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull approved a settlement Tuesday in the case of a Billings minister who sued the state after being arrested on trespassing charges while gathering signatures for a ballot measure seeking to amend the state's constitution to define unborn children as persons.
Calvin Zastrow, a minister for the Assemblies of God, was arrested on trespassing charges after he refused to leave a location near MetraPark commonly used to gather petition signatures. Zastrow tried to convince voters that they had a religious duty to support anti-abortion initiatives and candidates.
The charges were dropped.
County officials did not allege that Zastrow violated the 1913 law on coercion or undue influence that limits the speech of ministers, clergy and churches regarding candidates and ballot issues. But Zastrow's lawsuit sought to prevent the state from threatening to enforce it.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Black, who handled the case for the state, said he did not believe the statute had ever been enforced.
"Based on our review we chose to allow the court to enter the judgment that it was unconstitutional," Black said.
Cebull granted a permanent injunction that prevents the state and county from enforcing the statute and prohibits its text from being included on "warning posters" which are displayed at polling places throughout the state, the newspaper reported.
"We are very pleased that yet another absurd, anti-free speech Montana election law has been struck down," said Bozeman attorney Matthew Monforton, who represented Zastrow. "This means that Cal and other pastors have the same right to engage in the political process that everyone else has."