Friday, October 27, 2006

Florida's Supreme Court Rejects Wiccan Tax Challenge

Tallahassee, FL – Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court declined to consider a Wiccan group’s challenge to a state sales tax exemption. Earlier this year, the high court agreed to take the case and heard oral arguments from both sides regarding the Wiccan’s objection to a sales tax exemption for Bibles and other religious items. Liberty Counsel filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court defending a state law that exempts Bibles, religious publications and ceremonial items from sales tax. In a 6-1 decision, the Court found no conflict in appellate court rulings on the underlying issue of whether the Wiccans have the right, or “standing,” to challenge the law.The Wiccan Religious Cooperative of Florida (Wiccans) follow an earth-based belief religion and at one time qualified for the tax exemption on certain items sold by the Cooperative. They lost their exemption in 2000 because they did not own a place of worship as required by state regulations. They filed suit on Halloween in 2000, saying they paid sales tax on the purchase of the Satanic Bible and the Witch’s Bible Compleat and claiming Florida Statute 212.06(9) violated the Establishment Clause. A trial judge ruled the Wiccans had standing to sue. A Florida appeals court reversed that decision. The Wiccans appealed. The Florida Supreme Court agreed to take the case based on appellate rulings which, at first, appeared to be in conflict with that issue, when, in fact, it dealt with the narrower issue of “taxpayer standing.” The Court opined the Wiccans lack standing to challenge the law because they are not harmed by it. This is not the same as taxpayer standing.Liberty Counsel’s brief argued that the Wiccans had no standing to sue, because, even if the law were struck down, they would not receive a refund which it claims is due. The brief also points out that the Florida exemption differs from the religious publication exemption struck down by the Supreme Court in Texas Monthly v. Bullock. The Texas law exempted Bibles and religious publications but did not exempt secular publications. Florida law provides a wide array of exemptions for educational publications, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, promotional materials and works of art sold to or used by educational institutions. Finally, the brief argues that the best Supreme Court precedent is Walz v. Tax Commissioner, where the Supreme Court upheld property tax exemptions for churches. The brief points out that Texas Monthly was a fractured opinion with no majority, the Justices who voted to strike down the Texas law are no longer on the Court, those who voted to uphold the law still remain on the Court.The Florida Supreme Court did the right thing in dismissing this case. The Wiccans’ challenge was nothing more than a vindictive lawsuit. The Wiccans would not have benefited at all if they won because they were seeking to have all religious publications taxed, including their own. Florida’s sales tax exemption statute is constitutional and we are pleased that this vindictive challenge to the statute has been dismissed.