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Supreme Court Says States May Tax Merchandise Sold by TV Preachers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Supreme Court, ruling in a California case involving Louisiana evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, upheld states’ rights to impose sales tax on Bibles, pamphlets and tapes sold in the state by TV evangelists, ruling that these products are not free from taxes simply because they carry a religious message.

The unanimous high court decision represents a $183,338 loss for Swaggart, representing the amount he was assessed by the state for the years 1974 to 1981.

The colorful and controversial evangelist, more recently noted for his involvement in a sex scandal, conducted 23 “crusades” in California during those seven years and sold more than $240,000 worth of Bible study manuals, cassettes, records and other products with a religious message. In addition, his Baton Rouge headquarters sold another $1.7-million worth of similar products through the mail to Californians.

State sales taxes in California range from 6 1/4 to 7 1/4%, depending on special assessments added in various counties. California also assesses the same tax for items bought through the mail by state residents if the seller does business in California. Because of the crusades, Swaggart was deemed to do business in California, state tax officials said.

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Lawyers for Swaggart said California is the only state to tax religiously oriented products. After contesting the tax and losing in the state courts, Swaggart paid the tax under protest and appealed to the Supreme Court. His lawyers urged the justices to strike down the tax as a violation of the evangelist’s constitutional right to the “free exercise of religion.”

His appeal was joined by a variety of religious groups, from the Hare Khrishnas to the mainline National Council of Churches, which contended that California’s taxes are a “serious threat” to spreading the religious gospel and therefore unconstitutional.

But the high court flatly rejected that view today.

The First Amendment does not require the government to take a hands-off approach to religiously oriented businesses, wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for the court in Swaggart Ministries vs. California, 88-1374.

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California’s tax is “neutral and non-discriminatory,” she said. Swaggart was not “singled out for special or burdensome treatment” because his products were religious, she added.

If an evangelist or a church was in danger of being put out of business by an exorbitant licensing fee or a tax, O’Connor said, that might be unconstitutional. In the past, the court has struck down laws that appeared to stifle religion or forced a religious adherent to violate his beliefs.

By contrast, O’Connor said, “The only burden on (Swaggart) is the claimed reduction in income” resulting from the tax.

Last year, the high court ruled that Texas violated the First Amendment’s ban on subsidizing religion because it exempted religious magazines from a sales tax. If California had similarly exempted Swaggart, it could have been accused of subsidizing religion, O’Connor noted.

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The court opinion pointed out that Swaggart did not contest the sales tax charged on a variety of other products sold by Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, including “T-shirts with JSM logo, mugs, bowls, plates, replicas of the crown of thorns, ark of the covenant, Roman coin, candlesticks, Bible stand, pen and pencil sets, prints of religious scenes, bud vase and communion cups.”


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