Larson v. Valente, et al.
Decided on Apr. 21, 1982; 456 US 228

Minnesota law on reporting requirements for religious organizations
is challenged for allegedly violating the Establishment Clause


A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (religion), Establishment Clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a statute imposing registration and reporting requirements only upon those religious organizations that solicit more than half of their funds from nonmembers discriminate against such religious organizations in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause?


A. Background:

Minnesota amended its charitable solicitation law in 1978 to exempt religious organizations which solicited more than 50% of their contributions from members and affiliated organizations from having to submit forms explaining their percentage of income spent on administrative costs.  Groups which received more than 50% of their revenue from nonmembers were required to register with the state, file financial disclosure forms, and be subjected to closer state scrutiny.

Individual appellees, members of the Unification Church, brought suit against the state claiming the amended charitable solicitation law violated the Establishment Clause.  After winning in trial court and at the US District Court for the District of Minnesota, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated and remanded the lower court’s favorable ruling.  The Court of Appeals concluded that the 50% rule should be stricken, but organizations should not enjoy the religious organization exemption solely by claiming to be religious.  The Court ordered appellees to prove their religious organization’s status in order to gain the exemption.

The appellants, office holders responsible for implementing the Minnesota Charitable Solicitations Act, appealed the Court of Appeals decision to strike the 50% rule.  The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Barry A. Fisher argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were David Grosz and Robert C. Moest.
Larry Salustro, Special Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota, argued the cause for appellants. With him on the briefs were Warren Spannaus, Attorney General, pro se, and William P. Marshall, Special Assistant Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Charles S. Sims and Bruce J. Ennis for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.; by Nathan Z. Dershowitz for the American Jewish Congress; by Lee Boothby for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State Fund, Inc.; by Robert L. Toms for the Center for Law and Religious Freedom of the Christian Legal Society; by Robert W. Nixon for the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists et al.; and by the Greater Minneapolis Association of Evangelicals. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of appellants.

"The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another…

Since Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), this Court has adhered to the principle, clearly manifested in the history and logic of the Establishment Clause, that no State can 'pass laws which aid one religion' or that 'prefer one religion over another.'...

The fifty per cent rule of 309.515, subd. 1(b), clearly grants denominational preferences of the sort consistently and firmly deprecated in our precedents. Consequently, [456 U.S. 228, 247]  that rule must be invalidated unless it is justified by a compelling governmental interest... and unless it is closely fitted to further that interest...

Appellants assert, and we acknowledge, that the State of Minnesota has a significant interest in protecting its citizens from abusive practices in the solicitation of funds for charity, and that this interest retains importance when the solicitation is conducted by a religious organization. We thus agree with the Court of Appeals... that the Act, 'viewed as a whole, has a valid secular purpose,' and we will therefore assume, arguendo, that the Act generally is addressed to a sufficiently 'compelling' governmental interest. But our inquiry must focus more narrowly, upon the distinctions drawn by 309.515, subd. 1(b), itself: Appellants must demonstrate that the challenged fifty per cent rule is closely fitted to further the interest that it assertedly serves…

Appellants argue that 309.515, subd. 1(b)'s distinction between contributions solicited from members and from nonmembers is eminently sensible. They urge that members are reasonably assumed to have significant control over the solicitation of contributions from themselves to their organization, and over the expenditure of the funds that they contribute, as well…

We reject the argument, for it wholly fails to justify the only aspect of 309.515, subd. 1(b), under attack - the selective fifty per cent rule. Appellants' argument is based on three distinct premises: that members of a religious organization can and will exercise supervision and control over the organization's solicitation activities when membership contributions exceed fifty per cent; that membership control, assuming its existence, is an adequate safeguard against abusive solicitations of the public by the organization; and that the need for public disclosure rises in proportion with the percentage of nonmember contributions. Acceptance of all three of these premises is necessary to appellants' conclusion, but we find no substantial support for any of them in the record…

In sum, we conclude that the fifty per cent rule of 309.515, subd. 1(b), is not closely fitted to the furtherance of any compelling governmental interest asserted by appellants, and that the provision therefore violates the Establishment Clause. Indeed, we think that 309.515, subd. 1(b)'s fifty per cent rule sets up precisely the sort of official denominational preference that the Framers of the First Amendment forbade. Accordingly, we hold that appellees cannot be compelled to register and report under the Act on the strength of that provision.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is Affirmed."
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Brennan, W. Pro (wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (joined dissenting opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (joined dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Con (wrote dissenting opinion, joined Rehnquist's dissent)

The ACLU filed a brief of amicus curiae urging affirmance; The US Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win