Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Tax on Both Your Houses

This story made the AP and Knight-Ridder wires yesterday:

A retired Atlanta librarian and a Sandy Springs bookshop owner are challenging a state law that grants a sales tax exemption for purchases of the Bible and other books pertaining to what the law defines as Holy Scripture.

Their lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, said that if such works are exempt from sales and use taxes, other philosophical, religious and spiritual works should be as well.

"The law is written in such a way that minority religions don't get the same tax exemption as better-known religions such as Christianity and Judaism," said Maggie Garrett, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which represents the two plaintiffs.

State law exempts from sales tax all "Holy Bibles, testaments and similar books commonly recognized as being Holy Scripture." The decades-old law also exempts "any religious paper . . . when the paper is owned and operated by religious institutions and denominations." It does not define "religious paper."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sonny Perdue said, "It appears that the question lies in the definition of 'Holy Scripture.' " It appears to me the question lies in the definition of "commonly recognized."

For the life of me, I can't think of a reason why this shouldn't be extended beyond the Bible.

Apple said that if Georgia isn't going to tax the Bible, "it should be consistent and not tax scriptures from other religions and traditions or from a philosophical bent of those who do not follow a particular religion but who are searching for life answers."

If two customers are standing at the counter, one buying a Bible and another purchasing a sacred Hindu text, "I shouldn't have to say to the person buying the Bible, 'You don't have to pay tax because you have the right religion,' " Apple said Monday.

Right. See, this is the problem with making special state laws to protect religion. To stay within the Constitution and the spirit of America, you either have to protect all religions or none of them. And in modern times, that includes personal faiths. When certain people say "Catcher in the Rye" is their Bible, I think they really mean it.

For that matter, why tax books at all? Isn't in the state's interest to encourage reading?

On the other hand, the tactics here are typical ACLU. They never attempted to resolve the situation amicably and quietly. They went right for the jugular, no doubt in hopes of getting publicity out of it, and of being able to claim a "victory" in their next fund-raising appeal.

State Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham, the defendant in the lawsuit because his agency oversees collection of sales taxes, said he was unaware of the dispute until notified of the lawsuit Monday afternoon.

Graham suggests the whole thing could have been resolved easily. He said his office, responding to a previous inquiry, had suspended the sales tax on purchases of the Quran. But he said no one, including presumably the people involved in the new lawsuit, had contacted the office about other religious or spiritual texts.

"Most organizations or advocates will approach us to isolate a specific issue they have," Graham said. "Often we can take a number of issues off the table, either by rule or regulation .... We don't like to start in court, but if someone wants to go down that road, we're more than happy to accommodate them and work through the issue."

Legally, I'm on the side of the ACLU here. But my sympathies and respect are with Graham. Seems that's happening more and more lately.