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Ruling on Bibles called victory for religious freedom

Sunday, April 25, 1999

By Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Steve Zupcic is elated, now that Bibles must be taxed, because it means there's one less way government can regulate religion.

Zupcic sued the Department of Revenue in 1993 to stop the state from exempting Bibles and other religious publications from the state sales tax. On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the tax is illegal because it creates a preference for communicating religious messages.

But the ruling upsets Glenn Sentner, owner of New Beginnings Christian Bookstore in Allison Park.

"Especially with the school shootings out in Colorado, we should be doing everything we can to think about religion, instead of stirring up controversy over religion."

He said government should encourage religion.

"If we could get kids to spend just five minutes in the morning talking about God -- not pushing God down their throats -- but taking a minute to think what Jesus would do in a situation, there would be so much more peace in the world."

However, taxes on Bibles will not deter his customers, Sentner said. The average Bible sells for about $40, so the seven percent sales tax in Allegheny County would add $2.80. The tax will increase state revenues by $900,000 annually.

Wednesday's ruling was on an appeal of the 1997 decision by the Ridge administration. Now the state can appeal the latest ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Or, it could begin taxing all publications equally or broaden the tax law to overcome constitutional objections.

The tax exemption violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment -- holding that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- according to the opinion written by Justice Sandra Schultz Newman.

She cited a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says governments must show in Establishment Clause cases that their actions serve a secular purpose, neither advance nor inhibit religion, and do not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.

Courts have allowed religious tax exemptions as long as they have an overarching secular purpose that equally benefits similar nonreligious organizations.

Zupcic challenged the 1956 tax exemption after he noticed that secular books were taxed but some spiritual books were not at Saint Elmo's Books & Music on the South Side.

He went to the Book Center at the University of Pittsburgh and bought a King James Bible; a Koran, the sacred book of Islam, and a Haggadah, containing the story of Exodus that is read at the Jewish Passover Seder.

The Koran and Haggadah were taxed. The Bible wasn't.

The American Civil Liberties Union took the case. "It was clear religious discrimination," said Zupcic, 49, of Edgewood.

He wouldn't identify his religious affiliation but said he worships regularly. "I would not have thought of the Bible case if I had not thought a great deal about religion."

He said he fears that a government that can give preferential tax treatment to one religion can just as easily use its powers to suppress religion. His ACLU attorney agreed.

"Any time you cheat the government out of religion, you strengthen the ability of religion to function autonomously." said David Millstein of Greensburg.

Felice Newman, publisher of Cleis Press in San Francisco and formerly on the South Side, also joined the lawsuit. Her company's motto is "queer books for smart readers."

"If you don't have to pay sales tax on the Bible, then why should you have to pay sales tax on 'Best Lesbian Erotica 1999'? Who gets to decide that the Bible is sacred but a book on sexual spirituality is not?" she asked.

"Anytime you allow civil government to meddle in matters of content of literature, you are creating a precedent for censorship in the future. That is certainly possible in our society, where there is a history of criminalizing erotic materials."

Zupcic sees an outcome that would benefit religious and secular institutions and not violate the Constitution. Instead of taxing Bibles, he said, the state could exempt all publications.

"We don't tax food in Pennsylvania. What is literature but food for the soul?"

By making literature tax-free, he said the state would encourage the exchange of information and thus stimulate commerce.

As for the Bible he bought six years ago, he said, he still uses it.

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