The Minnesota Campaign Finance Board made a decision Thursday that's likely to have big implications in the battle over a proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage.
The board ruled that corporations that spend money trying to influence the way people vote on constitutional amendments must disclose the names of large donors. Amendment supporters strenuously object to the change.
Political funds set up to influence ballot measures already disclose their donors, so the ruling affects the groups that give to those political funds.
A corporation, anything from a law firm to a church, could donate money to a ballot committee without saying where the money came from.
But with a proposed constitutional amendment on the Minnesota ballot next year which asks voters to define marriage as between one man and one woman, campaign finance staff sought clarification on the rules that apply to these donors.
Executive Director Gary Goldsmith asked the board to weigh in because the lack of disclosure was out of step with Minnesota's campaign finance laws.
"Board action would be beneficial in making it clear that the board will, in fact, recognize this mechanism for ballot question committees to do their underlying disclosure," said Goldsmith.
The board agreed, and voted 5-1 to require corporations that give at least $5,000 to a ballot measure, to name those people who contributed $1,000 or more.
Two legal scholars challenged this interpretation of Minnesota's campaign finance laws.
William McGeveran, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law, said he personally opposes the marriage amendment, but he warned of the privacy costs of disclosure.
"When blind dates Google you, when employers conduct background checks, when advertisers target sales pitches, when neighbors visit websites that mash up campaign finance records with maps, they discover your political beliefs," said McGeveran.
The strongest dissention came from Minnesotans for Marriage, the only pro-amendment group registered with the Campaign Finance Board.
James Bopp, Jr., a lawyer from Indiana who represents the group, said he fears amendment supporters could be harassed if they are publicly identified. In an interview after the ruling, Bopp said the disclosure requirement could also snare unwitting donors.
"People for instance will make contributions to a church, and the purpose will be to help the church's mission. But under the Minnesota law, they'll end up being reported as a contributor to a ballot measure committee, even though they had no intention of doing that," said Bopp, adding that those people could be "subjected to harassment, which we know is a campaign that homosexual activists have done all over the country."
"I'm not sure what they're speaking of when they say that," said Donald McFarland, project manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, one of four registered groups fighting to defeat the amendment.
McFarland said his group isn't planning to harass any ballot measure supporters.
Neither McFarland's group, nor any of the others that support same-sex marriage, testified before the board. They didn't make this their fight. McFarland says disclosure is not a concern he's heard among his donors.
"We're just glad that there's clarity," said McFarland. "We can now move forward, we know what the rules are and we're simply prepared to go from there."
The Campaign Finance Board and staff pledged to do further research and issue more guidance in the months ahead. Critics of the ruling won't say whether they might try to challenge this decision in court.
The public won't learn who the big donors are on either side until the first financial reports are due at the end of January 2012.