Rhode Island Supreme Court Upholds Bible Sales Tax Exemption As Unconstitutional

April 7, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesay, April 7, 1999

PROVIDENCE, RI — Rejecting a state appeal, the Rhode Island Supreme Court today upheld a 1997 lower court’s finding that a state law exempting Bibles from the sales tax is unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, which filed the case in 1994, had argued successfully before a District Court that the law violated the First Amendment’s ban on government endorsement of religion and freedom of the press.

As written, the overturned law had provided a special sales tax exemption for “any canonized scriptures … including but not limited to the old testament and the new testament versions.”

In its opinion, the High Court today held that by singling out particular types of publications for special treatment, the statute “unlawfully defines and rewards its beneficial recipients based upon the content and type of the publications in question.” This, the Court said, the state may not do without violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

The Court did not address District Court Judge Walter Gorman’s grounds for striking down the statute — that it violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The lawsuit was filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Kevin Brill on behalf of two Providence bookstores — Books on the Square and Cellar Stories Books — and three Rhode Island residents, including Thomas Ahlburn, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church in Providence.

The ACLU’s previous release on the case can be found at:

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