WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court upheld today the confidentiality of tax return information, handing the Church of Scientology a defeat in its bid to obtain IRS records relating to the church.
The court, in a 6-0 ruling with Justice William Brennan and Antonin Scalia not participating, upheld a lower court ruling that the Freedom of Information Act does not outweigh the confidentiality of tax returns.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the court could not find anything in the language of the 1976 Tax Reform Act, which dealt with confidentiality of tax return information, or the act's legislative history to support the church's agrument that the material should be released.
'In addition to the returns themselves, which are protected from disclosure by (provisions of the act), (the act) contains an elaborate description of the sort of information related to returns that (the IRS) is compelled to keep confidential.'
The case forced the court to weigh the privacy interests of taxpayers with the the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, which generally requires disclosure of federal government records.
The controversy began in May 1979 when the church filed a FOIA request with the Internal Revense Service seeking records relating to the church, the religion of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. The church wanted to use the tax data in an unrelated tax court case.
The request covered a broad area that included not only records they themselves had filed, which they are allowed to have, but information generated and filed by others such as other taxpayers and banks and employers that must file forms to the IRS. The request sought 'copies of all recoreds correspondence or any form of information relating' to the church, its founder and others.
The IRS refused to turn over most of the files, claiming their disclosure was regulated by provisions in the tax code, not the Freedom of Information Act.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with the IRS, ruling that tax return information may be released only if it is not in its original form so that the origin of the information is disguised.
Appealing to the high court, lawyers for the Church of Scientology argued that all tax return information is subject to the FOIA as long as it does not disclose the identify of the taxpayer to which it belongs.
Under the appeals court ruling, the church said, 'The IRS, merely by claiming that a requested document has not been 'reformulated,' may exempt that document from disclosure under the decision at issue herein, whether it impinges on the privacy of any taxpayer or not.'
Although the federal government agreed with the appeals court decision, it also urged the court to hear the case to resolve nationwide confusion over access to IRS records.
'The IRS in a typical year receives about 13,000 FOIA requests, and the absence of clear and uniform guidelines for processing these requests creates a substantial burden on the agency,' the government said. --- 86-472 -- Church of Scientology of California vs.