Religious organizations are also protected by the freedom of association, which is derived from the Free Speech Clause and the right to freedom of assembly protected by the First Amendment.52 “An individual’s freedom to speak, to worship, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances could not be vigorously protected from interference by the State unless a correlative freedom to engage in group effort toward those ends were not also guaranteed.”53
With churches and other ministries, this constitutionally protected right is most often invoked in the context of disclosure of membership lists and donors. The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the right to keep the identity of members and donors private.54 Courts recognize the strong privacy interests shielding the identity of donors against compelled disclosure. The government cannot force religious organizations to disclose these lists unless it can show a compelling interest.55 For example, limited disclosure was required in a case where the government was prosecuting criminal tax-evasion charges.56 But when private litigants demanded broad disclosure of members and donors in a lawsuit by former members against church leaders, the court declined to order disclosure.57 Generally, any inquiry by government actors into the membership rolls of a religious group is very problematic and raises serious constitutional concerns.
Do you know someone who would want to learn more about his or her constitutionally protected rights as a pastor?