The Unification Church, whose members reportedly solicit tens of thousands of dollars in Minnesota each year, is seeking to block the state of Minnesota from looking into its books.
The Church, headed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, claims First Amendment protection of religious freedom, an argument that has been successful in court challenges elsewhere.
The Minnesota attorney general contends that the church's activities are more commercial than religious and has filed 30 affidavits from former cult members in the state's case.
"We were cheap help," testified one ex-Moonie who reportedly sent up to $5,000 a week to church headquarters.
Under a Minnesota law enacted in 1978, any church that solicits more than $10,000 a year from nonmembers in Minnesota must register with the state Securities Division and file financial returns.
Four members of the church filed suit in October, seeking to block the registration process.
Their suit contends that the law gives state officials unfettered investigative powers to "requisition church books and records and interrogate church officials..." They also said it discriminates against the Unification Church by not requiring similar disclosures from traditional churches.
According to the Minnesota attorney general's office, the Unification Church raises $500,000 a year in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota. The church's total income last year was reported to be $30 million.
"We want to take a closer look at who these people are and what they are doing," said Doug Blanke of the attorney general's office.
The state has submitted to the court pages of testimony from former Moonies who claim they took part in questionable solicitation practices, and who admit falsifying financial records and wiring thousands of dollars a week to a church bank account in New York.
At an hour-long hearing, U.S. Magistrate Robert Renner took under study the church's request to enjoin the state temporarily from enforcing the Minnesota charities registration act.
He gave both sides additional time to file written arguments.