by Gregg Lee

PROVIDENCE, R.I.- As one of the oldest townships in the nation, it shouldn't be surprising that Providence might have laws on the books that might seem a little, well, let's say un-secular. One of those laws had a local minister (God forgive me) a little hot under the cassock. In Providence, the sale of Bibles had always been subject to tax exempt status, even though they were not covered under the state's tax exempt law. Bibles are printed on paper with ink like most other publications (the word "bible" actually means "book") but somehow managed to allude the state taxman.

Thomas Ahlburn is the senior minister for the First Unitarian Church, but his scope of belief is rare for one who dons the collar. In 1994, along with two other Providence residents and two local booksellers, Ahlburn filed a lawsuit claiming Rhode Island's law exempting Bibles from the sales tax violated the First Amendment. In April of this year, the state supreme court rejected RI's appeal and upheld a 1997 ruling by a lower court overturning the exemption.

Believe it or not, the fact that a man of the cloth brought the suit is only half the story.

In the original case, District Court Judge Walter Gorman ruled that the law did indeed violate the Constitution's ban of government endorsement of religion, as outlined in the First Amendment. But that ruling wasn't even addressed by the High Court, who found instead that the singling out of a particular type of publication for tax exemption "unlawfully defines and rewards its...recipients" and therefore violated the First Amendment's "freedom of the press" tenet. The original ruling stood, albeit under a new marquee.

ROC thinks maybe some clarification is in order.

1. In the original ruling, Judge Gorman stated that indeed Rhode Island was violating the first amendment on the grounds that the exemption was a government endorsement of religion.

2. Rhode Island appealed the ruling in the state supreme court, on the basis that Judge Gorman had drawn too fine a line between religious endorsement and separation of church and state.

3. The state supreme court upheld Gorman's ruling, with a twist. Instead of ruling that Rhode Island violated the first amendment's religious underpinnings, it ruled that the state had gone against freedom of the press. In this ruling, "the press" is defined in Constitutional terms, that being the act of operating a press for the purpose of producing printed matter.

4. Because both tenets fall within the realm of the first amendment, the state Supreme Court was able to uphold the ruling, and avoid a second trial.

Obviously, ROC opposes the tax exemption because it does indicate a reward for publishers who concentrate on one type of printed matter that would indicate a certain government preference for said content that we would find unacceptable. Perhaps a better idea for leveling the playing field though would be to exempt ALL publishers from the tax. Maybe more people would read if they didn't feel the government was taxing their right to do so.

Anyway, cheers to the Rhode Island Court system. In this case, they proved that the first amendment works, and that it works on several levels. No drop in Bible sales has been reported.

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