Sen. Colbeck introduces bill to protect First Amendment rights of religious leaders

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Senator Patrick Colbeck

Senator Patrick Colbeck

LANSING, Mich.Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, introduced Senate Bill 269 last week to remove an antiquated section of Michigan election law that criminally penalizes religious leaders for speaking on election-related topics, whether they do so inside or outside the church.

Under current law, religious leaders are guilty of a misdemeanor subject to a $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail for such actions. Religious leaders are the only people singled out under state law (MCL 168.931) for speaking out on such topics, meaning they can go to jail for saying things everyone else can say without consequence

“Our current law violates three provisions of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Sen. Colbeck said. “It violates freedom of religion. It violates freedom of speech. It violates freedom of assembly. It is a disgrace upon our state government that it was ever passed into law in the first place.”

The current law has been challenged in the past by Dr. Levon Yuille, pastor of The Bible Church in Ypsilanti. Pastor Yuille is also the national director of the National Black Pro-Life Congress and the former chairman of the Michigan Black Republican Council of Southern Michigan. In 2012, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Detroit, challenging this provision of Michigan’s election law and asking for an injunction to be issued on the law. The Sixth Circuit denied AFLC’s petition requesting a full court review.

“I find it shameful that religious leaders have been singled out for such prohibitions. The so-called ‘Separation of Church and State’ as embodied within our Constitution was instituted to protect churches from the state, and not muzzle their rights to free speech. There is no law ‘respecting the establishment’ of any specific religion at issue in this bill. What is at issue is the clear attempt to ‘restrict the free exercise thereof.’ It is time to restore respect for our church leaders, people of faith, and for our Constitution. It is time to pass SB 269 and remove this blemish from the compiled laws of our state.”

SB 269 has been referred to the Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee for further consideration.

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