Interesting case in Florida where a Wiccan group is suing the state because they exempt bibles from the state sales tax, but not other religious books. Naturally, religious right legal groups are defending the law because, truth be told, their goal is to preserve government benefits exclusively for their religion and not for others. Liberty Counsel, for example, has filed a brief in the case and makes a couple of unusual arguments in this article from Agape Press. He says:
However, Staver maintains that the Florida statute being contested is constitutional. "The case that the Wiccans have relied upon is really not good law anymore," he says. "The case that they are relying upon comes out of Texas, and in that case, the sales tax exemption was struck down because it only exempted religious publications and Bibles, but not secular publications."
According to the pro-family attorney, that ruling does not apply to Florida because the state has a broader exemption.
The precedent referred to is Texas Monthly v Bullock, a 1989 case that overturned a Texas law that exempted religious publications from the state sales tax. Florida's law exempts not only bibles but a wide range of educational publications as well and Staver apparently thinks that will save that law from the same fate. But I would argue that this distinction may in fact make the case stronger.
The Texas law did not treat Christianity differently from other religions. That law exempted from state tax any publications that were "published or distributed by a religious faith...consist[ing] wholly of writings promulgating the teachings of the faith and books...consist[ing] wholly of writings sacred to a religious faith." All religious faiths were equally exempt under the Texas law. But under Florida law, while the wording appears to be fairly broad in the tax law, the application appears to be rather narrow. Florida law says:
The taxes imposed by this chapter do not apply to the use, sale, or distribution of religious publications, bibles, hymn books, prayer books, vestments, altar paraphernalia, sacramental chalices, and like church service and ceremonial raiments and equipment.
But it also appears to interpret those organizations that get these exemptions rather narrowly, applying them only to churches, synagogues and registered non-profit religious groups. So the crux of the case really comes down to who qualifies for the exemption, which is itself worded fairly broadly. Here's one interesting recent precedent from Georgia, though. Just two weeks ago, a Federal judge in Atlanta struck down Georgia's law that made the sale of bibles exempt from state taxes. And here's a telling quote:
Sadie Fields, state chairman of the Christian Coalition, denounced the decision.
"It does not reflect the will of the people in Georgia," she said. "I think it's an outrage."
She also said she would oppose expanding the sales tax exemption to other spiritual philosophies. "I don't see any comparison between Scripture and some metaphysical nonsense," she said.
You gotta love that "will of the people" argument. Do you suppose that if the state legislature passed a law saying that Bibles, and only Bibles, would have a 50% tax on them, Mrs. Fields would be concerned about the "will of the people"? Of course not. And notice that her goal really is to distinguish her views as true and others as false - in her mind, it's okay for the government to exempt her religious views because those views are true, but all other views are false. This, however, is precisely the sort of determination that government may not make.
Then there's this odd statement from Staver:
Besides, he contends, it is to be expected that the new U.S. Supreme Court would not be sympathetic to the Wicca group's arguments anyway.
"In case the Wiccans haven't realized it, if they haven't been watching the news, the court has changed," Staver asserts. "We have a new day, and certainly this Supreme Court is not going to look with enthusiasm when it comes to taxing religion."
But this is simply a red herring. They aren't asking for religion to be taxed, they are asking for their religion not to be taxed just as other religions are not taxed. What Staver really means is that he doesn't think the Court is going to look with enthusiasm on treating all religions equally. Because that's what it's all about for him, preserving the privileged status of Christianity.
And remember, these are the same people who scream about "special rights" for gays and lesbians when they want the same protection from discrimination that the law already gives to religion. Apparently, when you want only yourself to be tax exempt and no one else, that's just within your rights. But when someone else wants to be treated the same as them under the law, then that someone obviously wants "special rights". It's all quite absurd.
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I wonder if the Texas law would have applied to the science fiction books of L. Ron Hubbard. And the "metaphysical nonsense" quote really gets me. The irony meter is pegged again.
But I thought conservative judges cared about the judicial process, not results. I'm shocked and saddened.
And quite right too. The Scriptures of the FSM are obviously far more significant than any of that credulous tosh the Christians came up with.
Why should religious texts, if they're printed by a for-profit publishing company, get tax exempt status anyway? If something's for profit it should get taxed like everything else.
And by the way, don't be so hard on Mrs. Fields. Her cookies kick ass!
There's also the question of "which Bible".
Does Florida maintain a list of "authorized translations"?
The Erotic bible
The Aussie bible
The funniest quote of the year!
Florida should at least tax-exempt The Shooter's Bible, since packin' heat seems to be Jeb's real religion.
Perhaps the wording needs to be refined. It should exempt from tax any book purporting to be non-fiction that contains references to beings or entities that are outside of nature and that have no real existence and that furthermore give instructions on how to placate such fictional creatures so these non-exisitng beings can grant some favour or boon to the reuqestor (often by temporarlity mdifying the laws of the universe for that purpose). Such books must bear a sticker that specifies the contents are not proven or even provable and that belief may be beneficial or hazardous to your mental health.
If I read what you've written correctly, the tax exemption applies to a broad set of religious items, when sold by churches, synagogues, or religious tax-exempt nonprofits. How much broader should it be? Can't the Wiccans get what they want by creating a 501(c)(3) to sell their stuff?
Is a Bible sold in Florida by a retail bookstore chain exempt from sales tax? If not, then what case do the Wiccans have?
Jim Lippard wrote:
That's a good question and I don't know the answer yet. I haven't seen any actual court documents, only media reports and the state law. The text of the law seems broad enough to encompass non-traditional religions, but it really depends on how it is interpreted. The state may well be interpreting the text to mean that it has to be something used in an actual church or synagogue, not in an open air religious ceremony. Or they may be denying that Wicca is a legitimate religion covered by the law. If it isn't something like that, then I don't see how they have much of a case because the text of the law itself is not facially discriminatory the way a specific exemption just for Bibles would be.
Tax free religion has been the biggest, on-going government handout in our nation's history. Add up all of the money collected, all of the property owned, all of the financial dealings of various religious organizations around the nation - all of it tax free - and that adds up to a whopping huge number of dollars that we, the people, do not get to collect one red cent of. That is one hell of a huge government subsidy that I believe, a very strong argument could be made that we simply can no longer afford. Tax-free religion is a complete sham in my view.
I wrote about the Georgia decision on my blog a while ago.
Lippard makes a point above regarding where the textual materials are sold that is important. CA used to have, and may still have, similar tax codes that specify tax exemptions for items sold on tax exempt religious properties. It was a bone of contention for many when the End Times novels became so popular, and churches felt they could increase their own revenues by selling them in their onsite bookstores. This led to some intense discussion in the State legislature of which outcome i am not aware. They may have changed the language of the law, more like Texas, or already had that language and referred to it. There are Wiccan ecclesiastical sites, as well as those of other non-mainstream religious groups in CA, and several have stores of their own; I know that ritual and ceremonial items can be purchased tax free in these stores. What i don't know is whether the same holds for all of those Christian and other religious bookstores that are commercial properties, or in malls, and thus represent for profit entities, although they sell all manner of "sacred" religious materials?
What Staver really means is that he doesn't think the Court is going to look with enthusiasm on treating all religions equally.
Staver should wake up and smell the hallucinogenic tea. The Roberts court may yet surprise us.
Your comparison to gay rights is especially apt. I've been watching my state legislature debate a constitutional amendment to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage, barring the rights & benefits associated with marriage from anyone but married couples (which, by the state's definition, gays & lesbians can never be). Now, when the argument goes that marriage is special and deserves exclusive rewards, it at least sounds plausible. I mean, everybody digs marriage, right?
But when if the issue was a particular religion, or even religion in general, deserving exclusive rewards, that lays the prejudice open a bit more widely.
I think one should either exempt all books from taxation (on the basis: we support culture and literacy) or none of them. I see no reason to single out religious publications and give them special treatment. In my country, which is considered "devout", Catholic Bible publishers pay their taxes just like everyone else.
The tax exemption for religious books should not be reworded -- it should be scrapped altogether. As comments here indicate, such tax laws force governments to make decisions that no state is competent to make, such as what constitutes a "religious text" -- or, for that matter, a "religion."
Jim Lippard's reference to 501(c)(3)s points to a much fairer solution: non-profits already get tax breaks, so those non-profits who sell holy books are already covered, while for-profit companies that sell the same books to make money, don't get tax breaks they haven't earned.
Both the TX law and the FL law are patently unconstitutional, under the 1st amendment, as applied to the states via the 14th amendment. They are laws respecting "establishments of religion," freeing them from the obligation to pay or charge sales tax that non-establishments of religions are obligated to pay.
Tax exemption: I think this is being looked at backwards.
When you exempt an entity from taxes, you have not modified the loads that the taxes, through gov't spending and activity, address, and so you have not reduced the amount of taxes that must be collected. Instead, you have reduced the number of payers, thereby increasing the amount per remaining payer.
This clearly demonstrates that exemption is a (very) thinly veiled method of having the other taxpayers support the portion of the load, financially speaking, that the tax-exempt entity is now free of.
In other words, I am being forced to pay some portion of what the Catholics, Christian Scientists, Hindus, Muslims and so forth are not paying. I object to this on multiple grounds, the foremost being a complete unwillingness to be forced to actually contribute to the welfare of a religious entity in any shape or form.
This situation has a direct correlate in the sale of books: If a popular science book on, say, volcanos, is subject to tax, but a bible is not, then the science book is footing part of the bill that the bible would otherwise be responsible for.
I am, of course, ignoring the likelyhood that should additional tax dollars be collected, our representatives (and I use that term loosely, they don't "represent" me, of that you may be certain) are unlikely to return the excess directly to the taxpayer. However, it would increase the amount of work the gov't could do, which, one might argue, could be a good thing under certain circumstances. :/