Church Membership – Part 3

A federal court in the District of Columbia ruled that a church could not be forced to disclose the names of its members in a lawsuit.

Church Law and Tax2003-07-01

Church Membership – Part 3

Key point 6-03.4. Church donor and membership lists are subject to government inspection, so long as the government has a compelling interest in obtaining this information.
Church Records

* A federal court in the District of Columbia ruled that a church could not be forced to disclose the names of its members in a lawsuit. The Washington Times is a prominent daily newspaper with a national and international circulation. It is owned and published by the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (the “Unification Church”). A former employee sued the newspaper, alleging that she was denied a raise because she was not a member of the Unification Church, and that she was fired when she charged the newspaper with religious discrimination. She sued the newspaper, claiming that it had discriminated against her on the basis of her religion in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As part of her lawsuit, she asked the newspaper to divulge the names of all employees who were members of the Unification Church. The newspaper refused to comply on the ground that doing so would violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. A federal district judge began his opinion by observing,

There is, therefore, in my view, implicit in the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, the right to choose whether or not to disclose one’s religious affiliation lest forced disclosure inhibit the free exercise of one’s faith. I have to believe that, when a person provides her name and address to a church that has asked her to become a member, she reasonably expects that her name and address will be disclosed to other church members, used by the church to invite her to other church functions, and used to solicit her contribution to the church’s financial welfare. There is nothing I know of in the American experience that suggests to me that by giving one’s name and address to a church one thereby agrees to the publication of one’s religious affiliation to the whole world.

The judge, however, ordered the newspaper to designate a person who would be responsible for reviewing the church membership (but not the identities) of employees who had received raises or been dismissed, and report the conclusions to the court. The judge was satisfied that this would “maintain its church members’ anonymity throughout the discovery process.” Johnson v. The Washington Times Corporation, 208 F.R.D. 16 (D.D.C. 2002).

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