California’s Donor-Disclosure Law Threatens Religious Charities

California’s Donor-Disclosure Law Threatens Religious Charities
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
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As Americans, we often take for granted that our government generally has no business regulating what we believe, what we say, who we associate with, or what organizations we support financially. But California now demands that each of the more than 60,000 private charities registered in the state provide it annually with the names and addresses of their top donors.

Regrettably, California’s attorneys general have not given such sensitive information the respect it deserves. Their office has leaked donor information like a sieve, publicly releasing information from over 1,700 groups.

The release of sensitive donor information poses unique problems for religious nonprofits. The tenets of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all stress the importance of anonymous gift-giving. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his followers that, when giving to the needy, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” The great Jewish scholar Maimonides recognized levels of charity with some requiring anonymity. And the Quran elevates anonymous almsgiving above its disclosed counterpart. One study showed that anonymity substantially increased the number of donations from Muslim contributors.

On a more worldly level, the unfortunate practice of doxing – broadcasting private information about an individual for the purpose of inciting harassment and punishment – threatens donors to religious organizations. Any donation to a controversial cause – with an ever-expanding definition of what is “controversial” – can result in boycotts, picketing, public shaming, and even loss of employment.

California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, claims that he will keep donor information confidential. But his office admitted that separating confidential information from public documents was tedious, with room for errors to be made. Errors, no doubt, occurred. For a time, anyone with an internet connection could see who donated to an organization and where that person lived. The attorney general also admitted that the office overseeing the filings was underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped.

So when the attorney general sought Thomas More Law Center’s donor information beginning for the year 2010, the center understandably balked. Thomas More Law Center promotes religious freedom, moral and family values, and the sanctity of human life – ideas that, unfortunately, have become all-too controversial. Its employees and clients have received threats, harassing calls, and obscene e-mails. A major donor was labeled one of the “most antigay persons in the country” and suffered a national boycott of his restaurants. Another donor anonymously sent cash to the center, afraid of the possible repercussions from being associated with it.

Not once has the attorney general given a convincing reason for collecting donors’ names and addresses en masse. His office has effectively regulated charities for decades without that information. In 10 years, the attorney general only used donor lists in five out of 540 investigations. And even in those five, he could have obtained the same information through targeted subpoenas or audits, all without risking the massive disclosure of sensitive information from all registered charities. For years, the Thomas More Law Center had given the attorney general its tax information minus its list of donors. No one had ever filed a complaint against the center, nor did the attorney general ever investigate it.

But the attorney general refused to back down. My firm, Alliance Defending Freedom, has asked the Supreme Court to take up the center’s case. And the United States has now filed a brief supporting that request. The case could have major ramifications for religious nonprofits. For over 60 years, the Supreme Court has recognized that the First Amendment protects the confidentiality of individuals who associate with and donate to nonprofit organizations. That fundamental protection is especially important in today’s digital and divided age.

The Supreme Court has an important opportunity to right California’s wrong and reaffirm what we all know: government has no interest in regulating whom we associate with, especially when that involves the exercise of our religious freedom. California has no good reason to interfere.

John Bursch is vice president of appellate advocacy and senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (@AllianceDefends), which represents Thomas More Law Center in its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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