X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to a Florida law exempting sales taxes on religious books. A divided Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to accept the case, filed by a nonprofit Orlando-based Wiccan group, and hear oral arguments on its merits. The case centers on a Florida law that exempts sales and use tax on “religious publications, bibles, hymn books, prayer books, vestments, altar paraphernalia, sacramental chalices, and like church service and ceremonial raiments and equipment.” The lower appellate court opinion reveals the Wiccan group was exempted from paying sales tax on copies of the Bible and Quran, but forced to pay sales tax on the Satanic Bible and the Witches Bible. The question before the court is whether a tax-exempt organization, like a religious group, has a right to challenge a state tax exemption that benefits them. The state and the 1st District Court of Appeal argue the Wiccan group’s status as a beneficiary of the exemption prevents the church from challenging the law. The Wiccan group and the trial court argue that any taxpayer, which the Wiccans are, can challenge a state tax exemption. If the Supreme Court finds the group does have standing to sue, it is unclear whether the justices will address the constitutionality of the state exemption. Justices Charles T. Wells, Harry Lee Anstead, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince voted to take up the case, while Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente and Justices Raoul G. Cantero III and Kenneth B. Bell disagreed. The Wiccan Religious Cooperative of Florida first filed suit in Leon Circuit Court, alleging the Florida Department of Revenue improperly denied its renewal application for a sales and use tax exemption. The DOR filed a motion for summary judgment and Circuit Judge Kevin Davey granted it, finding that the Wiccan group had standing to sue but that the state statute it was challenging was constitutional. Judge Davey also found the Wiccan group had not exhausted its administrative legal remedies. The Wiccan group appealed, only challenging the order that found the Florida law at issue constitutional. The law, the group argued, violates the U.S. Establishment clause and right to a free press. In response, the DOR argued that the group had no standing to sue. On review, a split three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed with the DOR, finding that because the disputed exemption benefits religious groups, and since Wiccan is a religious group, it does not suffer the required adverse affect required to give the group standing to challenge the law. The majority vacated the final judgment in favor of the DOR, but remanded the case to Judge Davey to enter summary judgment in favor of the department. 1st DCA Judges Edwin B. Browning Jr. and Ricky Polston comprised the panel majority. But Judge Robert T. Benton II concurred in part and dissented in part. Benton argued that the question of standing was not properly before the appellate court and said he would have let Judge Davey’s finding on the issue stand. But, Benton said he would have voted to overturn Judge Davey’s conclusion that the state law was constitutional. “An exemption that is central to a statutory scheme purporting to authorize a discriminatory tax on the sale, use and distribution of publications, based explicitly on their content, does not conform to federal constitutional requirements,” Benton said in the beginning of his dissent. Citing U.S. Supreme Court and 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent, Benton wrote, “The imprecise reach of an exemption for ‘religious publications’ is bound to create problems in its everyday administration.” “Does Herman Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ qualify?” Benton continued, “Or Nikos Kazantzakis’ ‘The Last Temptation of Christ?’ As a practical matter, it falls to booksellers to decide by their own, idiosyncratic lights — at least in the first instance — which publications are “religious” and which are not.” Benton noted that the majority had not declared whether or not the law was constitutional, but rather, “avoids reaching the First Amendment questions on grounds that are logically and legally unavailable in the procedural process of the case, and that are dubious in their own right.” Benton then went on to argue the 1st DCA’s reasoning on the standing question, objecting to the reasoning that because they are a religion they cannot challenge a law meant to benefit religious groups. “Does this mean that a synagogue cannot question the legality of using public money for a creche [Nativity scene] in the courthouse if a Star of David is installed?” Benton asked. “Would a Muslim congregation have standing [in the same situation], given Islam’s view of Jesus as prophet?” He concluded: “Whatever else may be said about the majority opinion’s approach to standing, it discriminates against organizations because they are religious. This is not in keeping with our traditions.” Heather Morcroft, an Orlando lawyer representing the Wiccan Cooperative on a pro bono basis, said, “I think that the standing issue that is before [the justices] is a crucial constitutional issue, and I’m happy to see that they’re looking to hear what we have to say about it.” Lawyers for the state were not available for comment.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.