|Attorney Bill Maurer Explains Why Catholics Should Be Wary
By Annamarie Adkins
SEATTLE, Washington, 22 SEPT. 2009 (ZENIT)
It's conventional wisdom that getting the "money" out of politics is
a good thing.
But why is it assumed that when politicians
whom the public normally perceives as nakedly self-interested at best,
and corrupt at worst
write laws regulating their own behavior, they don't do so for their own
benefit, or to insulate themselves from public pressure?
That is just one concern among many of a coalition of organizations
from across the political spectrum that has recently teamed up to fight
the prohibition of corporate political speech at the United States
Supreme Court. The case is called Citizens United v. Federal Election
Citizens United involves the government's ban of a cable TV movie
criticizing Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary season.
The case raises a stark issue: If the government can ban movies, why
can't it ban books, too?
To better understand the reach of campaign finance laws, ZENIT turned
to attorney Bill Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice
Washington Chapter. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law
firm based in Arlington, Virginia, is one of the leading opponents of
campaign finance laws in the United States.
Maurer authored one of the Institute for Justice's amicus briefs in
the Citizens United case, and is currently litigating a handful of
related cases around the country.
He shared with ZENIT why Catholics, particularly because of their
history of persecution and status as minorities and outsiders, should be
skeptical of laws that limit the ability to speak about political
ZENIT: Should Catholics be suspicious of campaign finance reform
laws? Isn't it good to get the money out of politics? Won't an excess of
resources on one side of an issue or candidate distort the debate?
Maurer: All Americans should be suspicious of governmental attempts
to regulate and restrict political activity. Catholics, who have at
times suffered discrimination at the hands of a hostile majority, should
specifically be concerned that we do not give the government tools it
could use to silence voices with which it disagrees.
If the government has the ability to determine when the influence of
one side of a political debate has become "excessive" or "undue," then
the government will have the ability to turn down the voice of a speaker
to make the debate "fair."
It will come as no surprise, then, that the government will often
conclude that the voices that need muzzling are the ones that oppose
those in power. In that regard, Catholics are well aware of the long
tradition of some in this country to bemoan the perceived "undue"
influence of the Church in government affairs.
As for money in politics, in a country this big with so many people,
money is an absolutely essential tool for speakers to reach the public.
Quite simply, given how much the government does at the state and
federal level, it is surprising that Americans do not spend more money
on political speech.
As the government grows larger and touches areas of people's lives in
ways it has never done before, the need for informed public debate about
what goes on in the government becomes stronger than ever. The public's
ability to hear political ideas should not be limited to those who have
the resources or capacity to hear a politician speak in person.
ZENIT: How do campaign finance laws affect the political
participation of both the bishops and the laity more generally? Can you
give specific examples?
Maurer: Bishops and other members of the clergy are often more
circumspect regarding political activities, not because of campaign
finance laws, but because of the restrictions on political activities
related to the preservation of the Church's tax-exempt status.
However, when the bishops and clergy do become involved in specific
campaigns, such as state initiatives regarding human life issues, they
are burdened by the same restrictions other citizens are.
For instance, if they organize to spend money to oppose a "death with
dignity" initiative, like the one in Washington State, they have to form
an issue committee and declare the names, addresses, and employer of
contributors to the effort so that the government can publish them on an
These burdens create enormous disincentives for people to engage in
political activity. This is especially true of disclosure rules.
For example, donors to the anti-gay marriage initiative in California
(Proposition 8) found themselves the subjects of threats, boycotts,
demonstrations, and economic reprisal after the opponents of the
initiative viewed their donation information on a state Web site. At the
same time, opponents of the measure claim that proponents used
disclosure information to try to blackmail donors into giving equal
contributions to each side. Political harassment is often an equal
As for the laity, when people band together and pool their resources
to pursue political change, they often discover that their efforts are
subject to campaign finance laws.
Indeed, one of the leading campaign finance laws of the past few
years involved Wisconsin Right To Life's efforts to pressure two
senators to bring President Bush's judicial nominees to a vote, an act
which brought their efforts under federal campaign finance law
restrictions because one of the two senators were running for
ZENIT: Recently, the Diocese of Bridgeport came under scrutiny by the
State of Connecticut for allegedly violating its grassroots lobbying law
when it encouraged Catholics to oppose a bill that would have affected
Church governance. What happened in that case? Do you believe we will
see more instances of the government regulating the Church's voice in
the public square?
Maurer: In March 2009, the Connecticut General Assembly introduced
legislation that would have deprived priests and bishops of the ability
to sit on the bodies of the corporations that control parish property in
Connecticut, and mandated that the governing bodies of these
corporations come solely from the lay members of the parish.
In response to what it viewed as a direct challenge to the Church's
authority over the internal workings of its parishes, the Diocese of
Bridgeport posted information about the bill on its Web site and
requested pastors read a statement at weekend Mass urging opposition to
The Church also encouraged parishioners to attend a rally and to
contact their legislators.
These efforts led the diocese to be investigated by the Connecticut
Office of State Ethics for violations of the state's "grassroots
lobbying" law, which requires registration with the state if an entity
engages in "soliciting others to communicate with any official or his
staff in the legislative or executive branch of government ... for the
purpose of influencing any legislative or administrative action."
The diocese filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the
constitutionality of this law, but after the Connecticut Attorney
General concluded that the Church's activities fit within a statutory
exception, the OSE dropped its investigation and the diocese voluntarily
dismissed its lawsuit.
The experience of the Bridgeport Archdiocese is unfortunately all too
Americans often find themselves embroiled in complex and far-reaching
campaign finance laws when they engage in activities they rightly view
as protected under the First Amendment.
Even if they are found not to have violated any rules, the emotional
and financial cost of being investigated by the government can be
Any church that crosses the threshold into "grassroots lobbying" can
suffer the same fate as the Bridgeport Archdiocese if it urges the
faithful to take action on public issues vital to the Catholic faith.
Such parishes may find themselves using their finite resources to defend
against government regulators instead of using that money to further
their apostolic mission.
ZENIT: Some say that the rowdy town hall meetings and publicity
efforts currently affecting the U.S. health care debate demonstrate the
problem of manufactured activism, as well as illustrate the need to
regulate grassroots lobbying and require disclosure of donors. How would
Maurer: There is perhaps no activity more at the core of protected
First Amendment liberties than citizens speaking to other citizens
regarding the wisdom of proposed legislation.
Quite simply, it is not the government's place to regulate how
Americans speak to each other about the issues that affect their lives.
Moreover, there is no difference
from the Constitution's perspective
between "manufactured" activism and other kinds of activism.
In other words, there is no such thing as authentic or inauthentic
speech; there is only speech. If the government were to begin compiling
lists of Americans' political activities, these lists would soon turn
into little more than government-mandated enemies' lists.
With regard to whether the debate over health care is "rowdy" or not
some political speech is dignified, informed, and polite. Some is not.
Americans have a great tradition of raucous debates about issues
dating all the way back to the founding of this nation and Catholics
have sometimes been the rowdiest speakers on the issues.
We would lose much of our ability to engage in the unfettered
exchange of ideas if we were to allow some regulatory agency to police
and thus the content
of our speech. If you disagree with the manner or content of someone's
speech, the cure is to speak up yourself about why they are wrong, not
to shut down the other speaker.
ZENIT: What principles should Catholics keep in mind when they
evaluate various proposals to reform participation in the political
Maurer: At a time when many of the Church's teachings and beliefs
conflict with many beliefs held by the political establishment across
the country, Catholics should recall that giving the government the
means to control political debate can result in the silencing of
In the examples I previously mentioned
Proposition 8, the Wisconsin Right to Life case, and the experiences of
the Bridgeport Diocese
campaign finance laws were used to try to shut down political activity
supportive of Church views. The lesson is that when government has the
power to regulate core political speech, any speaker may find itself
The government no longer investigates and logs the activities of
political outsiders, as it did with the civil rights and anti-war
movements in the 1960s. Instead, it now forces citizens to report
themselves and then makes the database of citizen activities available
to anyone with access to a computer and the Internet.
This cannot be a good development for a Church that speaks so often
against the predominant views of those in government.
With each proposal to "reform" campaign finance laws, Catholics
should therefore ask themselves: (i) will this encourage or discourage
political speech and activity, (ii) does this interfere with the ability
of those in the minority to freely and unreservedly express their views,
and (iii) will this proposal give those in power a tool with which to
suppress viewpoints with which they disagree.
In the end, Catholics should support a vibrant and unregulated public
square, where the truth and wisdom of the issues that affect all of our
lives may be freely and passionately debated.
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On the Net:
Institute for Justice: www.ij.org