High Court Rejects Sales Tax Appeal on Religious Goods

October 12, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today declined to review a decision barring Pennsylvania from including religious publications and other items in the materials it exempts from sales taxes, the Associated Press reported.

The justices, rejecting without comment an appeal by state authorities, left intact rulings that had struck down Pennsylvania’s treatment on the sale of religious goods.

Although today’s ruling sets no legal precedent, it does leave the many other states with similar tax laws vulnerable to challenge, the AP said.

The Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case on behalf of two individuals, relied heavily on a 1989 Texas Supreme Court decision that struck down a law exempting religious magazines, but not others, from its sales tax. The ACLU knocked down a similar law in North Carolina.

According to the civil liberties group, bibles and religious publications are the only published materials exempt from Pennsylvania tax, illustrating a clear preference for religious speech.

With the help of the ACLU, Felice Newman, who runs a publishing company, and Steve Zupcic, who has bought exempt and non-exempt publications, sued, contending that the exemption violates the constitutionally required separation of church and state.

“We expected this decision,” said David Millstein, a volunteer ACLU attorney from the firm Millstein and Knupp. “The Supreme Court was relying on precedent that said in commerce, religious articles cannot be treated differently than non-religious goods.”

Both a state trial court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the tax exemption had to end.

“The tax exemption challenged here lacks the requisite breadth, and it is the role of the Pennsylvania Legislature, and not the function of this court, to remedy this deficiency,” the state court ruled last April.

In the appeal acted on today, state officials argued that the Texas case was different because the exemption at issue was limited to the sale of religious literature by religious groups. The appeal also noted that since 1970 the nation’s highest court has condoned religion-based tax exemptions for property owned by religious organizations and used solely for worship.

“Pennsylvania’s statute is neither novel nor unusual,” the appeal said. “The widespread nature of these exemptions, and their longstanding place in our law, make it all the more important that the court clarify their status.”

In legal papers, the ACLU urged the justices to reject the appeal. “Hand-picking religious articles for favored treatment under the sales tax code clearly places the prestige and coercive authority of the state behind religious beliefs in general and must therefore fail.”

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