Key point 6-03.1. Church members generally have no right to inspect church records unless such a right is conferred by state nonprofit corporation law, a church's charter or bylaws, state securities law (if the church has issued securities), or a subpoena. Church records enjoy no privilege against disclosure, with the exception of documents that are protected by the clergy-penitent privilege under state law.
A New York court ruled that members of churches incorporated under the state nonprofit corporation law have a legal right to inspect church records so long as they act in good faith and for a proper purpose, and their request pertains to records that are relevant and necessary to the proper purpose.
A church member asked to inspect certain church records. When his request was denied, he asked a court to compel the church to turn over the records pursuant to a provision in the state nonprofit corporation law giving "any person who shall have been a member of record of the corporation for at least six months immediately preceding his demand" to have access to the records of the corporation. A trial court denied the member's request, but this ruling was reversed on appeal.
A state appeals court noted that while the member was no longer a member of the church's board of deacons, his status as a member of the congregation during the six months preceding his request to inspect church records was sufficient to trigger the right of inspection. The court further noted that the nonprofit corporation law permitted members to inspect corporate records only when acting in good faith and for a "proper purpose." The court concluded that both of these requirements were met in this case.
However, the court concluded that the member's description of the records he wanted to inspect was vague, and that "to the extent that the demand is over-broad, the [trial court] may exercise its discretion to narrow its focus so that the church is required to produce only those records that are relevant and necessary for [the member's] purposes.
What this means for churches
This case illustrates three important points. First, most state nonprofit corporation laws give members a legal right to inspect corporate records for a "proper purpose." As a result, members of churches that are incorporated under such a law have a legal right to inspect specified records. Second, a right of inspection only applies to members. The New York law confers a right of inspection only on persons who have been church members for the six months preceding their request for inspection. Third, a request for inspection will be denied, or limited, if it is "over-broad." That is, the church is only required to disclose records that are relevant and necessary to the request for inspection.
Smith v. Calvary Baptist Church, (N.Y.A.D. 2006).