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 a member had a legal right to inspect church records on the basis of a provision in the not-for-profit corporation law.
A church member requested permission to inspect certain books and records of his church for the years 1997 to present. He relied on the following section of the New York Not-For-Profit Corporation Law (under which the church was incorporated):
Upon the written request of any person who shall have been a member of record for at least six months immediately preceding his request … the corporation shall give or mail to such member an annual balance sheet and profit and loss statement or a financial statement performing a similar function for the preceding fiscal year, and, if any interim balance sheet or profit and loss or similar financial statement has been distributed to its members or otherwise made available to the public, the most recent such interim balance sheet or profit and loss or similar financial statement. The corporation shall be allowed a reasonable time to prepare such annual balance sheet and profit and loss or similar financial statement.
The church denied the member's request to inspect church records on the ground that his "fellowship" had been "suspended" by his failure to tithe and to take "the Lord's Supper." The court rejected this excuse, noting that the church's bylaws "do not define either fellowship or the effect of suspension," and that the bylaws "clearly set out a different criteria for expulsion of one's membership, which affords a member an opportunity to resign and a hearing, neither of which has occurred. In fact, it is uncontested that no process of expulsion has occurred." The court concluded that the member was "simply trying to enforce his secular rights as a member, using the church's own criteria of membership and the pastor's own admission that plaintiff has not been expelled as a member."
The court rejected the church's claim that its first amendment rights would be violated by an inspection of its records, since "the questions involved here are not concerned with internal ecclesiastical or religious issues, but purely secular ones."
The court concluded that the member "has demonstrated a good faith basis and proper purpose in seeking the inspection, while [the church] has failed to carry its burden of demonstrating bad faith."
What this means for churches
This case provides church leaders with some useful insights into the meaning of state nonprofit corporation laws that give members a limited right to inspect corporate records. Consider the following:
- The right of inspection is not absolute. It only exists if a church is incorporated under a state nonprofit corporation law that gives members such a right.
- The right of inspection only extends to members.
- The right of inspection only extends to those records specified in the statute creating the right.
- Most such laws provide that the member may inspect documents "for a proper purpose" at a "reasonable time."
- The court in this case concluded that a member had the legal authority to inspect church records even though the pastor claimed that the member's "fellowship" had been suspended by his failure to tithe or take the Lord's Supper.
The court examined the church's bylaws and found no provision addressing suspension of membership on the grounds cited by the pastor.
Watson v. Christie, 732 N.Y.S.2d 405 (2001).