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.
A federal bankruptcy court ruled that a creditor was not entitled to obtain the names of the members of a church that was in bankruptcy. A financial institution (the "creditor") loaned money to a church that later filed for bankruptcy. The creditor asked the court to compel the church to disclose the identities and residential addresses of all of its members. A court declined to order the church to turn over its membership list, for two reasons.
The court concluded that the church's membership list was irrelevant to the creditor's desire to assess the church's ability to pay its debts:
At the core, discovery must focus on relevant information. The court fails to see how a membership list is relevant to [the creditor's] purposes. There may be members included on the list who have not stepped foot in the door in a decade, while there may be faithful attendees who are not members. While the court would not challenge that numbers relating to the congregants may be material, including the number of members on the roll, the number of people attending services, the number of those people who are financially supporting the church, the court cannot conclude that the actual membership list is relevant.
The court also ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented the creditor from obtaining personally identifiable information about church members:
Fear of the consequences of the disclosure of one's religious affiliation may be palpable and real at a certain point in history. 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 church functions, and used to solicit her contributions 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.
What this means for churches
This case will serve as a useful precedent to any church that is asked, in the course of litigation, to turn over information about its members. Doing so impinges not only on a church's constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, but also on church members' constitutional right to free association. As the court noted, "membership lists are generally subject to heightened protection by courts because of the potential chilling effect on the First Amendment right to freedom of association." In re Deliverance Church, 2011 WL 6019359 (N.D. Ohio 2012).