Pennsylvania continues fight for tax breaks for religious publications

Tuesday, August 3, 1999

With the governor’s support, Pennsylvania’s attorney general is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate a state high court ruling that struck down tax breaks on the sale of Bibles.

In April the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in Zupcic v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that the state’s sales-tax exemption for “the sale at retail or use of religious publications sold by religious groups and Bibles and religious articles” subverted the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The unanimous state court held that the tax break for Bibles and other religious publications had no secular purpose and therefore was unconstitutional.

The law had been challenged in 1993 by a group of taxpayers and secular book distributors on grounds that the state was giving unconstitutional preference to religion. The state’s high court cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Texas v. Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock, in which a similar tax exemption in Texas was invalidated, as authority for its ruling. Pennsylvania’s tax exemption “suffers from the same defects as the Texas exemption,” wrote Justice Sandra Schultz Newman for the Pennsylvania court.

Last week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court hoping it would take the case and reverse the state court ruling.

“Pennsylvania excludes many of the necessities of life from taxes — food, water, clothing, medicine, fuel and burial,” Fisher said in a prepared statement. “For many people, a Bible or a Koran is as much a necessity of life as are bread or shoes, and as worthy of an exemption.”

Newman, however, wrote that the only way the state could justify a tax break for religious printed matter was to make sure secular publications received the same treatment. “If the Legislature does so in a way that benefits nonreligious publications equally with religious publications, and provided that there is an overall secular purpose, such an exemption would pass Establishment Clause scrutiny,” she wrote.

Instead of proposing a new sales tax, Gov. Tom Ridge applauded the attorney general’s efforts to save the religious exemption.

“It is entirely appropriate for the state to encourage religion in our communities by exempting religious publications from the sales tax,” Ridge said in prepared statement. “For evidence, one need only look to tragedies such as the shooting at Columbine High School. Religion is a fundamental source of stability in our communities – and government shouldn’t charge a tax for you to practice it. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will agree with this common-sense proposition.”