North Carolina laws requiring religious and other organizations soliciting money for charity to obtain licenses from the state have been ruled unconstitutional by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Suits challenging the constitutionality of such laws were filed in 1977 by a religious television network based in Charlotte and the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
The laws in question authorized the North Carolina Department of Human Resources to license religious and nonreligious organizations that want to solicit contributions. Certain organizations including religious groups that solicit contributions either exclusively from their own members or primarily from their own members, were exempt from the licensing requirement. But the exemptions did not apply to a religious organization, such as the Unification Church, that obtains at least 51 percent of its contributions from nonmembers.
The laws also required the state Department of Human Resources to deny or revoke a license if its officials determined, among other things that "an unreasonable percentage" of the contributions solicited would not be applied to a "charitable purpose."
The Court of Appeals said the laws ammount to an uncontitutional "prior restraint" of religion because state officials, in granting or denying a license, must determine whether certain religious activities are for a charitable purpose. It said that in making such a decision, state officials are given the right to judge religious matters, which violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The court also said the laws do not provide state officials with enough standards to use in making their licensing decisions. Such broad discretion for officials is in violation of North Carolina's Constitution, the court said.
Further, the court ruled, the exemptions provided by the law are unconstitutional because they are "arbitrary and irrational." It said, "there is no showing that religious groups, who solicit primarily from nonmembers are more likely to engage in fraudulent or deceptive practices in their public solicitation than the groups exempted [religious groups who solicit exclusively or primarily from members]."
The statutes in question, the court held, also are unconstitutionally vague because they do not define clearly who can be considered a "member" of a religious organization. And, it said, the section of the law requiring groups to use only 35 percent of their contributions for operating expenses is unconstitutional because when applied to religious organizations, it hampers their "ability to effectively exercise their First Amendment freedoms."