WASHINGTON — In a blow to the Church of Scientology, a unanimous Supreme Court today made it easier for the Internal Revenue Service to withhold material sought by individuals or organizations under the Freedom of Information Act, a law aimed at curtailing government secrecy.
In a case brought by the Scientologists, the court ruled 6 to 0 (with two justices not participating) that the IRS legally may refuse to disclose certain records even if the tax agency could delete anything linking those records to individual taxpayers.
Led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court said the Freedom of Information Act does not require the IRS to make such deletions so certain documents can be released on request.
Scalia Ruling Upheld
The decision upheld a federal appeals court ruling written by Antonin Scalia in May, 1986, a month before President Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court.
Scalia did not participate in today's decision. Justice William J. Brennan also did not take part, for reasons which were not announced.
The 1966 act generally makes government records more accessible to private citizens, but it contains numerous exceptions to disclosure.
For example, the act exempts from disclosure someone's tax returns and "return information"--internal IRS documents, such as audit reports.
But an amendment to the act states that "return information" is not to include "data in a form which cannot be associated with, or otherwise identify, directly or indirectly, a particular taxpayer."
Lawyers for the Church of Scientology, which has had several long-running battles with the IRS, argued that the amendment forces disclosure of documents in the tax agency's files when any identification of an individual taxpayer can be wiped out.
Scientologists in 1980 had filed a freedom of information request for all IRS documents mentioning the church, founder L. Ron Hubbard and his wife, Mary Sue Hubbard.
The appeals court, in its opinion by Scalia, ruled that the disputed amendment requires disclosure of only "reformulated" information--that which is taken out of IRS documents and compiled in a new form.
Other federal appeals courts had interpreted the amendment in varying ways.
Writing for the high court, Rehnquist said, "As with a return itself, removal of identification from return information would not deprive it of protection under (an FOIA exemption)."