On October 30, Robert Muise, Co-Founder and Senior Counsel of the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC), presented oral argument in federal court in support of AFLC’s request for a temporary restraining order, which, if granted, would halt the enforcement of a provision of Michigan’s election law that prohibits religious leaders from “influencing a voter at an election” by advising the voter “under pain of religious disapproval.” A violation of this criminal law subjects the offender to a fine or imprisonment.
The hearing was before the Honorable Gerald E. Rosen, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
Judge Rosen scheduled the hearing as part of an order to the government defendants in the lawsuit – the Michigan Attorney General and the Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney – to “show cause why the Court should not grant Plaintiff’s motion for a Temporary Restraining Order/Preliminary Injunction.” The judge’s order also required the government to “show cause, in writing,” by last Friday, October 26, “why the Court should not grant” AFLC’s motion. The Michigan Attorney General, in his official capacity, which requires him to prosecute and uphold the laws of the State, defended the law in a 22-page brief filed with the court. AFLC filed a reply brief, asserting that the government’s “arguments are wrong on all counts” and setting forth additional case law to support AFLC’s position.
On October 29, the Michigan Attorney General, in his individual capacity, filed a “friend of the court” brief “to clarify his personal position regarding the constitutionality” of the Michigan election law. In this brief, Attorney General Bill Schuette urged the court to strike down the law, arguing that it “is not a neutral law of general applicability but specifically targets religious speakers and religious speech; substantially burdens political and religious speech as well as the free exercise of religion; and cannot be justified by any compelling governmental interest.”
AFLC’s lawsuit was brought on behalf of Pastor Levon Yuille, the pastor of The Bible Church in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Pastor Yuille is also the National Director of the National Black Pro-life Congress, the former Chairman of the Michigan Black Republican Council of Southern Michigan, and the host of Joshua Trail, a popular Christian radio talk show.
At issue is § 168.931(1)(e) of the Michigan Compiled Laws (MCL), which states, “A priest, pastor, curate, or other officer of a religious society shall not for the purpose of influencing a voter at an election, impose or threaten to impose upon the voter a penalty of excommunication, dismissal, or expulsion, or command or advise the voter, under pain of religious disapproval.” Anyone who violates this statute “is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
As argued in AFLC’s motion for the temporary restraining order, “In light of the upcoming presidential election scheduled for November 6, 2012, Pastor Yuille wants to profess his sincerely held religious beliefs and advise voters, particularly those voters who are members of his church, to vote consistent with God’s Word so as to avoid religious disapproval and suffering separation from the body of Christ. Consequently, Pastor Yuille seeks to engage in religious speech for the purpose of influencing voters at this upcoming election. However, Pastor Yuille is prohibited from doing so under MCL § 168.931(1)(e).”