Justices to Hear Swaggart Tax Case

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, agreeing to hear an appeal from evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, said Monday that it will decide whether he can be forced to pay California tax on the sale of religious pamphlets.

The case, to be heard in the fall, may clear up a dispute over the First Amendment, which prohibits the government both from making laws concerning the “establishment” of religion and from interfering with the “free exercise” of religion. At issue are claims that these two prohibitions may sometimes conflict with one another.

Just two months ago, the high court ruled in a splintered opinion that Texas had violated the “establishment” clause by exempting religious magazines from sales tax. The exemption amounted to favoritism for religion, the court said in a ruling that struck down such exemptions in 15 states.

Now Swaggart contends that any such tax on religious publishers amounts to interference with the free exercise of religion and thus violates the other half of the First Amendment’s religion clause.


California Tax Policy

California, along with the majority of states, taxes sales of religious literature the same as other publications, but Swaggart contends that this policy violates his rights. Between 1974 and 1981, Swaggart conducted 23 crusades in California and sold thousands of books, pamphlets, records and tapes through the mail. He was assessed $185,167.02 in sales taxes.

“The ‘free exercise’ clause protects the right to hear and receive the religious message as well as the right to preach,” Los Angeles lawyer Charles R. Ajalat told the court on behalf of the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. To allow states and localities to impose sales taxes on religious literature, he said, could “chill” the practice of religion and endanger “religious liberty.”

Attorneys for California argue in the case (Swaggart Ministries vs. Board of Equalization of California, 88-1374) that the state’s policy does not discriminate either for or against religion.


The Swaggart Ministries “is attempting to avoid paying its fair share of support of state government expenses by asking for constitutional exemption of its religious activities from fair non-discriminatory state sales . . . taxation which is applied equally to all sellers,” state attorneys said.

In the Texas case, the high court split 6 to 3 in favor of Texas Monthly’s assertion that it was unfair, based on the “establishment” clause, not to tax religious publications.

But three of the judges in the majority--Byron R. White, Sandra Day O’Connor and Harry A. Blackmun--said they did not know how they would rule if a religious publisher insisted that a sales tax interfered with the “free exercise” of religion.

In other actions Monday, the court:


--Said that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis cannot stop the Defense Department from sending the state National Guard to Central America for training.

State militia units are part of the regular army in wartime but are generally under state control in peacetime. The Constitution says that Congress controls the militia but reserves to the states the “authority of training in the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

When the Ronald Reagan Administration said that it wanted to send National Guard units to Honduras for training, several governors, including Dukakis, refused. In 1986, Congress changed the law to take away the governors’ power. Dukakis filed suit. He lost in a district court and an appellate court, and without comment the justices denied his appeal in the case (Massachusetts vs. Department of Defense, 88-1223).

--Agreed to decide whether U.S. agents can search the home of a reputed Mexican drug dealer without a search warrant issued by a federal court.


The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, had said that they cannot. It said that the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches “imposes substantive restraints on the federal government, even when it operates abroad.”

In its appeal, the Justice Department said that the ruling (U.S. vs. Rene Martin Verdugo-Urquidez, 87-1353) would hamper the U.S. war on foreign drug traffickers.

--Threw out a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that forbade judges in a Los Angeles County courthouse in Huntington Park from imposing an English-only policy on their employees. Both sides in the highly publicized case called the one-line high court order a victory.

A Spanish-speaking employee who challenged the policy, Alva Gutierrez, has moved on to another job, and in January she signed a settlement in which Los Angeles County agreed to pay her $85,000 in damages and attorneys fees. But lawyers for the Huntington Park judges appealed anyway, urging the justices to overturn the 9th Circuit ruling (Municipal Court, Southeast Judicial District vs. Gutierrez, 88-1395).


In response, the Supreme Court said: “The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded to the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 9th Circuit with instructions to dismiss the appeal as moot.” Despite that, Gutierrez has her $85,000.