In Minnesota, pro- and anti-gay marriage activists are fighting over political campaign disclosure laws, though this time the usual roles are reversed. On August 17, the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board ruled that the group working to defeat a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage does not have to disclose the name of a Catholic contributor to the “No” campaign. “John Doe,” who works for a Catholic organization in Minnesota, gave $600 to Minnesotans United for All Families, the main group opposing the amendment. (I serve as Treasurer of the group.) He told the Board that he feared the Church would fire him if it knew he made the donation. Under state law, he was entitled to exemption from itemized disclosure of his donation by Minnesotans United if he could demonstrate that he faced “loss of employment or other specified harms.” The Board determined he met that statutory standard. But supporters of the amendment, who have long claimed a need to shield the identity of their own donors, are saying that protection from harassment, intimidation, and retribution arising from amendment contributions should be a one-way street protecting only them.
The background to the Board’s decision provides some context for why John Doe sought anonymity. In May 2011, the Minnesota legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. The Catholic Church hierarchy in Minnesota, led by Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis and St. Paul, has made passing the marriage ban a top priority. So far, the Church has given more than $1 million to the “Yes” campaign, the largest donation on either side. But the Minnesota Church’s activism on the issue predates the campaign. In 2007, Nienstedt argued that those who “promote or encourage” homosexual acts cooperate in a “grave evil” and are “guilty of mortal sin.” In 2010, on the eve of statewide elections, Nienstedt advocated a constitutional gay marriage ban in DVDs distributed to 400,000 parishioners. Last year, Nienstedt informed churches that he would brook no open disagreement with the Church’s support for the amendment. Speakers against the amendment have been “uninvited” from local churches when the hierarchy learned of their planned appearances. Earlier this year, Catholic students were left in tears after approved speakers at a mandatory school assembly tore into gay marriage, comparing homosexual love to bestiality, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Earlier this summer, Trish Cameron, a teacher at a Catholic school in Moorhead, Minnesota, was fired when she privately told her supervisors that she personally opposed the amendment, even though she did not promote her views in the classroom.
The Campaign Finance Board analyzed Doe’s request as follows (the full text of the decision can be found at the Board’s website under the tab, “Board Issues Order Regarding the Application of John Doe for an Exemption from Disclosure. “):
The Board granted Mr. Doe’s request for an anonymous and confidential proceeding because it concluded that publication of Mr. Doe’s application, even if under a pseudonym, would expose Mr. Doe to the loss of his employment. For the same reason, this Analysis and Order are issued in terms intended to protect Mr. Doe’s confidentiality so that this document, itself, will not expose Mr. Doe to the loss of his employment. . . .
Mr. Doe is employed by a Catholic organization in a position where he may, from time to time, be required to represent the organization’s policies to the public and to other organizations. Mr. Doe has strong opinions regarding the pending marriage amendment ballot question. Mr. Doe’s opinions are in contrast to the official position of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, which is one of the main supporters of the amendment.
Mr. Doe’s job does not require him to advocate for or against the marriage amendment. Nor does Mr. Doe argue that he is entitled to an exemption solely because he is employed by a Catholic organization. Instead, Mr. Doe argues that because his job requires him to represent the Catholic organization’s policies to others from time to time, if his opposition to the marriage amendment was known, it would cause immense strain in his working relationships. Mr. Doe believes that this strain may be enough that his employment would be terminated….
Mr. Doe believes that Ms. Cameron’s situation provides evidence in support of his position. Mr. Doe points out that Ms. Cameron acknowledged her opposition to the marriage amendment only in private, yet her employment was terminated as a result. On the other hand, Mr. Doe, who sometimes represents a Catholic organization regarding policy, made a $600 contribution to an association diametrically opposed to the Catholic Church’s position on the same issue. Mr. Doe believes that the Catholic Church’s actions with respect to Ms. Cameron provide clear and convincing evidence that public disclosure of his opposition to the marriage amendment would expose him to the loss of his employment.
Minnesota Statutes section 10A.20, subdivision 8, requires an applicant to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that an exemption from itemized disclosure is needed to protect the applicant from exposure to the loss of employment or other specified harms. In this matter, the Board concludes that this requirement has been met.
In reaction to the decision, the “Yes” campaign dismissed the idea that gay-marriage supporters might need the same kind of anonymity that gay-marriage opponents have long claimed they needed. Chuck Darrell, the spokesperson for the “Yes” campaign, told the Star Tribune: “[The] history of donor harassment on the marriage issue overwhelmingly shows that it is only the donors to traditional marriage who are harassed.” The anti-gay marriage campaign also criticized protection for the Catholic donor on its Facebook page on August 22. The Yes campaign has effectively shielded the identity of most of its individual supporters by funneling their contributions through anti-gay marriage organizations like the Catholic Church, the Minnesota Family Council, and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) — which then make bulk organizational contributions to the Yes campaign. Under Minnesota campaign finance rules, these groups do not have to list individual donors in these circumstances. NOM has gone to great lengths in other states to protect its donor lists. So far there has been no word from the Catholic Church itself or from NOM about whether Doe should be able to have his identity protected.