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Nonprofit asks US Supreme Court to reverse decision forcing disclosure of donors

California demands confidential information, promises not to release it, then negligently makes it public
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WASHINGTON – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a Michigan-based nonprofit asked the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to take up their case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the organization must disclose the names and addresses of major donors to the California attorney general on an annual basis.

The 9th Circuit’s ruling reversed a federal district court’s decision in favor of the nonprofit, even though the California attorney general’s office has no compelling need for the information and has historically handled it with great negligence, publicly disclosing donors on the internet when such information should not have been disclosed and creating a perfect target for hackers by uploading thousands of confidential documents to the internet. In one instance, the attorney general’s office negligently disclosed the confidential information of hundreds of Planned Parenthood donors.

“Public advocacy is for everyone, not merely those able to weather abuse,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “Forced donor disclosure is a threat to everyone and discourages both charitable giving and participation in the marketplace of ideas. California’s policy makes the First Amendment’s promise of ‘free association’ a pipe dream. And donors have good reason to fear in today’s toxic cultural climate, especially with the astounding negligence that California has demonstrated in keeping confidential information from being disclosed that it has no good reason to demand in the first place.”

Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit organization based in Michigan, defends and promotes religious freedom, moral and family values, and the sanctity of human life. Roughly 5% of its donors are California residents, and it has operated as a charity in good standing with California’s attorney general for many years. However, in March 2012, the Attorney General’s Office began to harass the law center and demand the names and addresses of its major donors even though the center’s donors, clients, and employees have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, boycotts, and even assassination attempts from ideological opponents.

As the petition to the Supreme Court in the case argues, the high court’s decision in NAACP v. Alabama—which protected NAACP supporters from being targeted by white supremacists—applies to this case, Thomas More Law Center v. Becerra. The petition notes that NAACP v. Alabama has protected freedom of association for 60 years, and today’s environment is no time to remove that key safeguard. Further, the California Attorney General Office’s offers no protection against employees, contractors, or summer interns downloading, e-mailing, or printing donors’ names and addresses and then disclosing them publicly.

As the petition states, such disclosure is both damaging and unnecessary: “Requiring hundreds of charities to disclose donors’ names and addresses annually to a Registry with a proven history of leaking confidential information will have a devastating impact on support. In contrast, the Attorney General does not need donors’ confidential information, hardly ever uses it, and can readily obtain that data via an audit or subpoena on a reasonable suspicion of fraud.”

In the 9th Circuit, Thomas More Law Center’s case was consolidated with a similar lawsuit filed by Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck LLP attorney Louie Castoria is serving as California counsel in the case for Thomas More Law Center.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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John Bursch
John Bursch
Senior Counsel, Vice President of Appellate Advocacy
John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom.