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Bible tax ruling called blow to religion

May 16, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Waynesboro

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Bible lovers may soon have to pay more for the word of God, although the state governor is appealing to a not-quite-so-high authority.

Commonwealth Court ruled May 1 that an exemption for religious publications from the state's 6 percent sales tax is unconstitutional and amounts to favoritism to religious groups.

Gov. Tom Ridge is appealing that ruling to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the tax break encourages religion.

To some, the ruling reflects changing mores since 1956, when the exemption went into effect.

The decision not to tax Bible sales "says something about the moral leadership at the time," said Nelson Byers, owner of Christian Light Book Store in Chambersburg, Pa. "People should be able to buy Bibles without being taxed."

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Nelson said the added tax will have a greater effect on the price of more expensive Bibles, but he doesn't think it will deter buyers.

"I'm more concerned about the message," he said. "I think we're going in the wrong direction."

Bibles can cost anywhere from $6.95 for lower-quality paperback and children's editions, to $90 for hardback study Bibles and those covered in genuine leather.

The sales tax would add nearly $6 to the price of the more expensive Bibles.

"It is entirely appropriate for the state to encourage religion in our communities by exempting religious publications from the sales tax," Ridge said in a press release. "We hope the Supreme Court will agree with this common sense proposition."

Stores have been told to continue exempting the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon and other religious publications from sales tax until the state Supreme Court decides the matter.

Some believe all literature, including religious material, should be treated equally.

"I would think any literature of any variety should be taxed the same. Why should a religious book be tax-exempt?" said L. Granville Laird, co-founder of Free Thinkers of Waynesboro, adding that atheist literature is taxed.

As broad as the religious publications category is, Laird said, it's hard to determine what's eligible for tax exemption.

The court decision is in response to a lawsuit filed in 1993 by Felice Newman, owner of Cleis Press, a Pittsburgh publishing company, and Henry Haller, one of the company's customers, according to court documents. Haller was later dismissed as a party in the lawsuit.

The American Civil Liberties Union supported the plaintiffs in the case, court documents state.

Commonwealth Court ruled that the exemption violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions ban government from officially supporting religion under separation of church and state.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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