Leading religious liberty advocate gets de-banked

Ambassador Sam Brownback is the co-author of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and a former United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He's been fighting for people who have been persecuted for their faith for his entire career. However, he didn't expect that he himself would become a victim of religious persecution by his own bank. 

I recently talked with Ambassador Brownback on my podcast "Meeting of Minds." Below are a few highlights from that discussion, lightly edited for clarity and length. 

You started your organization. You went down to the bank, the old fashioned way, to deposit a check with the teller...and what happened? 

Sam: Well, we establish the account, and about three or four weeks later, I'm going down to put a deposit, an additional one, into it. My wife and I help get it up and going. And the teller says, I'm sorry, this account has been closed. And I was stunned. What? What did we do? We hadn't done anything. We had just gotten started, we had just opened it up, and then they're telling us the account has been closed. It was very startling to me at that time.

Jerry: It's almost a humiliation in some ways. I mean, for that to happen that way: to not get notified by your bank. To actually go there and suffer the kind of humiliation of "oh, that account's been closed. Why? I don't know" You know, there's something about that. It's unbusinesslike.

Sam: Well, some months later I got contacted by a lobbyist for Chase Bank who said "we want to apologize for our bad customer service. We're sorry about that." But then they didn't give me any reason for why they were shutting this down. And I thought "this goes beyond customer service. This seems to be far more than that."

Jerry: So you did have a conversation with somebody eventually? In other words, the teller didn't know anything, so of course you reach out to Chase, and you went through a few levels, got a little run around. And what did you find?

Sam: They just said the decision was made at the corporate level. It's secret. We can't tell you why, and it's irrevocable. We're not going to change our  mind.

Later, as this matured more and more, the lobbyist for Chase got involved some and they said it was bad customer service and apologized. But they didn't say they were going to reestablish the account. So somebody else said, okay, if you'll disclose the people that are giving up to 10% of your funds, disclose your criteria for supporting candidates that support religious freedom, we might consider reopening it.

We said: "we're not going to disclose that kind of information. You're not requiring that of other comparable groups. We don't have to disclose that kind of information to the United States government."

Jerry: It's a 501(c)(4). The contributions are not deductible! Someone might want to say "well, we're subsidizing this." No you're not. 501(c)(4)s aren't tax deductible, if memory serves me correctly. So it's essentially none of the government's business. And it's not the bank's business, either.

Sam: Yeah. They were asking for this and we were thinking "that seems completely inappropriate." Is that something you require all of your non-profit groups? To disclose that type of information?

We've sent a letter to the CEO, Jamie Dimon, about this. We're going to write board members at Chase Bank about this, and we'll be asking them why this took place. Because we're hearing about this happening to way too many people, and we want to expose it. And we want elected officials, state Attorneys General, Treasurers, to get involved and start asking questions.

Jerry: And one wonders: you got de-banked for mysterious reasons, but I think they're probably not so mysterious. Religious liberty is now something that has moved into the controversial--even negative--category for some elements of society. In other words, if you're a free speech or religious liberty advocate, you can often be labeled as a hate group. It happened to Alliance Defending Freedom. They don't hate anybody, but they're for religious liberty.

And the other thing that occurs to me is: why in the world would you disclose the donors? If you get de-banked because of your point of view in your cause, what's to say that if you disclose your donors, they wouldn't get de-banked to for being associated with your cause? I mean, why would they be any different ?

Sam: I don't know why they would be any different. And it also obviously has a chilling effect on people's willingness to give if that sort of information is disclosed, and they have to then factor in themselves: do I want to go through the hassle? The hassle that comes up with me standing up for an explicit First Amendment right of freedom of religion, of free expression, of free exercise. That's the actual wording: free exercise. You have the right to free exercise of religion in the Constitution's First Amendment. We're simply standing up for that. It seems to me there could hardly be something anything more American than free exercise, but I guess it's become controversial in some places.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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