LIVINGSTON -- Sikh Temple leaders must let congregation members review nearly a decade's worth of church financial records, a judge has ruled.
The decision is a nearly complete victory for Livingston resident Mohani Thiara and about 50 other Sikhs who sued the Peach Street temple in December so they could double-check how church money has been spent.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of spats between the temple's leadership and some of the congregation. The schism centers on the direction of the church.
Last year, some of the same Sikhs challenged the board's plan to build a multimillion-dollar community center next to the temple that would allow dancing, meat and alcohol -- all of which aren't allowed on religious land. The project hasn't moved forward, though a vacant spot for it remains behind the temple.
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In the lawsuit, Thiara and other Sikhs demanded financial statements, board of directors' meeting minutes and membership lists, the last of which collides with constitutional protections.
Merced County Superior Court Judge Ronald Hansen ruled Friday the membership lists requested will remain confidential because of the constitutional right to freely associate. Releasing them could infringe on that, as well as the right to privacy, he said.
Also, the court would have to decide who's a member, which mixes church and state matters.
"It would be inappropriate," Hansen noted. "This court cannot go there."
However, the financial records beginning in 2000 and meeting minutes from the temple's founding in 1981 can be released with certain provisions, he said, noting the importance of transparency these days.
The temple must give the records to Mark Cohen, the congregation's Fremont-based attorney, who will let his clients review them -- but not make copies.
Any auditor must follow the privacy guidelines as well or be held in contempt of court, Hansen said. "We will be bending over backwards to be discreet," he said after the hearing.
Also, any discussions at meetings that deal with religious issues, such as marriages and other ceremonies, must be blacked out for privacy.
Temple attorney Jakrun Sodhi, based in Modesto, argued in court that the incomplete bylaws filed with the State Franchise Board nearly 30 years ago were never adopted and that the church has no members, only a following of Sikhs.
The temple's board has its own set of rules that have remained confidential, and they keep all records behind closed doors. However, Sodhi will share the bylaws with the opposing attorney as part of the judge's ruling.
Temple leaders have 45 days to hand over the volumes of documents once both attorneys sign off on a court filing outlining the restrictions.
Church leaders have nothing to hide, Sodhi said, adding that any review of their records will prove that. "Nothing has been done inappropriately," he said.
Though the Sikh leaders withheld the financial details, Sodhi noted that the nonprofit's tax returns can easily be found online, and a monthly report is posted at the temple.
The highest expenditures -- $6,000 to $9,000 -- have been filed in the miscellaneous category, which could arouse suspicions. Sodhi admitted that there could be better reporting for some expenses, though none of the temple executives are paid for their time and effort.
He speculated that Thiara and her group would try to use any findings from the bylaws and financial records to cause inter-temple conflict.
Rather, Cohen said, if any errors or problems are found, the congregation would like to meet with leaders and discuss ways to improve.
"This is good for the temple," he said. "It shouldn't be one side versus another."