ACLU Suit Targets Taxes on 'Religious' Books

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In the state of Georgia, the Bible, the Torah, and Koran are tax-exempt, but Hindu texts, for example, are taxable. The ACLU is suing to bring some clarity to this situation because booksellers don't know what qualifies as a "religious" book. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When you buy a Bible in the state of Georgia, you do not pay sales tax. Since the 1950s, Bibles and some other religious Scriptures are tax free. Now the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state, saying the practice is unconstitutional because it discriminates against lesser-known religious texts. From George Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, Susanna Capelouto reports.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO reporting:

On the shelves of the Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore in Sandy Springs, Georgia, you'll find everything you need to connect with your spirituality, says owner Candace Apple.

Ms. CANDACE APPLE (Owner, Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore): We sell books from traditions from all religions around the world.

CAPELOUTO: From the Kabbalah to the witch's bible and books like "Buddhism for Dummies," this store has it all. Apple is not happy with the state law that gives a special tax break to, quote, "Bibles, testaments and other texts commonly recognized as holy Scripture."

Ms. APPLE: If I were to have two customers come to the front desk at the same time and I'm checking one out and they're buying a Bible and I say, `Well, you have the right religion. You don't have to buy--you know, pay the sales tax.' And the next person is buying the Bagavagida or some other spiritual text, but I have to tax them because they apparently have the wrong religion.

CAPELOUTO: Apple and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the state of Georgia, charging that the tax exemption is a free speech violation. Maggie Garrett is the ACLU attorney in the case.

Ms. MAGGIE GARRETT (Attorney): More popular religions get the exemption whereas minority religions don't get the exemption. So what we're saying is in order to make such an exemption constitutional, the state needs to broaden their exemption.

CAPELOUTO: Or, Garrett says, the law should be struck down. The state revenue commissioner, who is named as the defendant in the suit, did not want to talk on tape. But Heather Hedrick, a spokesperson for Governor Sonny Perdue, says the lawsuit is not necessary to get a tax break for other books.

Ms. HEATHER HEDRICK (Spokesperson, Governor Sonny Perdue): Clearly, if the ACLU wanted an exemption for certain religious documents, they could have gone to the Department of Revenue and asked for an exemption. And most likely, if they could make their case, those documents would have been exempt from a sales tax. But instead, what they really want is a lawsuit.

CAPELOUTO: State officials say the Koran used to be taxed in Georgia but became tax-free about 10 years ago, after religious leaders petitioned the state. Michael Broyde is a professor of law and religion at Emory University. He says the law is constitutional as long as the state gives the tax exemption to sacred texts of all religions when asked.

Professor MICHAEL BROYDE (Emory University): The government can provide benefits to everybody that some faiths don't take advantage of, and that's not discriminatory. Just like government can provide free meat to all churches, even though there will be some religious faiths that won't eat the meat, you as an individual faith, choose whether you want this benefit. I don't think that that's a constitutional problem.

CAPELOUTO: Broyde says the state cannot decide what constitutes holy Scripture. It can only decide whether a text held sacred by a group of people is genuine. Maggie Garrett with the ACLU says it's not necessarily the application of the law but its original intent that violates the separation of church and state.

Ms. GARRETT: You know, what is the purpose behind exempting the Bible? It's a religious purpose to promote reading of the Bible, and so, you know, there is an establishment clause problem.

CAPELOUTO: Georgia isn't the only state where the courts are dealing with religious texts. Florida's Supreme Court has decided to hear a case on whether a group of Wiccans is allowed to challenge a tax exemption on religious books in that state. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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