Tax break solely for religious publications found to offend First Amendment

Friday, April 30, 1999

A Pennsylvania law that for more than 40 years granted tax breaks to sellers and distributors of Bibles runs afoul of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, the state’s high court has ruled.

In 1993 a group of taxpayers and publishers of secular books sued the state, arguing that the law exempting Bibles from the state sales tax violated the separation of church and state by giving preference to religion. In 1997 a lower state court ruled the exemption unconstitutional, saying it did not serve a secular purpose and therefore violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Gov. Tom Ridge then appealed the decision to the state’s high court.

Last week, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania agreed with the 1997 ruling and found the tax break for Bibles unconstitutional.

Citing a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock, the Pennsylvania court ruled that the state tax break applied only to religious publications sold by religious groups and Bibles and religious articles, thus making the law patently unconstitutional. In Texas Monthly, the Supreme Court struck down a similar tax break, saying that the law endorsed religious communications over secular publications.

“We find here the same preference for communication of religious messages that the United States Supreme Court found violative of the Establishment Clause in Texas Monthly,” wrote Justice Sandra Schultz Newman. “Comparable to the deficient Texas exemption, Pennsylvania’s exemption does not extend to publications by nonreligious groups, which are taxed, and therefore also lacks the requisite breadth for this to be anything but legislation intended solely to provide tax relief to religious organizations. Lacking a broader secular purpose, this exemption cannot survive an Establishment Clause challenge pursuant to the United State Supreme Court’s holding in Texas Monthly.”

Pennsylvania state attorneys attempted to save the Bible tax break by arguing that state tax law also granted exemptions for an array of other items, such as caskets and brook trout. But, again citing Texas Monthly, Newman said that granting other sales-tax exemptions for different purposes did not justify the state’s interest in granting tax relief solely for religious communications.

Newman, however, noted that the Pennsylvania lawmakers were not necessarily barred from exempting religious publications from taxation.

“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,” Newman wrote.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opined earlier this week that the state high court’s ruling “should be the end of this divisive and destructive dispute,” but that “those who see the decision as an affront to religion can be comforted by the fact that, tax or no tax, the Good Book will continue to be a best seller in Pennsylvania.”