The state of Montana reached a settlement in federal court this week with a Billings minister who was arrested while collecting signatures for a ballot initiative outside of a popular public facility.
Cal Zastrow, an Assemblies of God pastor, says that he was seeking signatures near the sports complex MetraPark earlier this year for Constitutional Initiative 108, which sought to add a Personhood Amendment for the unborn to the state Constitution, when he was approached by police. Law enforcement then asked him to move to another location, asserting that MetraPark was private property. When Zastrow refused to relocate to the area that he was directed to, noting that it was not an ample alternative because it was hidden by a tree, he was arrested for trespassing and jailed.
Soon after, the charge was dropped, and police ordered him not to collect signatures again in MetraPark.
Following the incident, Zastrow filed a lawsuit against the state, contending that his arrest was illegal. He also challenged an ordinance that prohibits clergy from engaging in persuasive discussions with voters about political matters. Although he was not charged under the statute, Zastrow wanted to ensure that it did not pose a future problem.
The ordinance states in full, “No person who is a minister, preacher, priest, or other church officer, or who is an officer of any corporation or organization, religious or otherwise, may, other than by public speech or print, urge, persuade or command any voter to vote or refrain from voting for or against any candidate, political party ticket, or ballot issue submitted to the people because of his religious duty or the interest of any corporation, church, or other organization.”
In court documents, the state agreed that the law, which was passed in 1913, violated Zastrow’s right to free speech. It offered to make adjustments to ensure that the statute would not be enforced, and acknowledged that the minister had a right to collect petition signatures at MetraPark.
“Based on our review, we chose to allow the court to enter the judgment that [the ordinance] was unconstitutional,” explained Assistant Attorney General Michael Black. “[However,] to the best of our knowledge, the statute has never been enforced.”
Zastrow noted that there were signs posted in various parts of the city that advised that certain forms of political speech by clergy were unlawful. The state vowed that it would ensure that the signs would no longer contain the prohibitory language.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull then approved a settlement between both parties this past Tuesday, bringing a conclusion to the case.
“We are very pleased that yet another absurd, anti-free speech Montana election law has been struck down,” stated Matthew Monforton, attorney for Zastrow. “This means that Cal and other pastors have the same right to engage in the political process that everyone else has. The state is no longer permitted to tell voters through ‘warning posters’ that pastors who engage in political speech are criminals.”
The lawsuit, Zastrow v. Bullock, was filed in February of this year. Zastrow was awarded a small amount in damages, and each side in the case must bear their own costs for attorney’s fees.