Swaggart Ministries v. California Board of Equalization
Decided on Jan. 17, 1990; 493 US 378


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Free Exercise of Religion

B. Legal Question Presented:

Do the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit a State from imposing a generally applicable sales and use tax on the distribution of religious materials by a religious organization?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"California law requires retailers to pay a 6% sales tax on in-state sales of tangible personal property and to collect from state residents a 6% use tax on such property purchased outside the State. During the tax period in question, appellant religious organization, which is incorporated in Louisiana, sold a variety of religious materials at 'evangelistic crusades' within California and made mail-order sales of other such materials to California residents. Appellee State Board of Equalization (Board) audited appellant and advised it that it should register as a seller as required by state law and report and pay sales and use taxes on the aforementioned sales. Appellant paid the taxes and the Board ruled against it on its petitions for redetermination and refund, rejecting its contention that the tax on religious materials violated the First Amendment. The state trial court entered judgment for the Board in appellant's refund suit, the State Court of Appeal affirmed, and the State Supreme Court denied discretionary review."

On appeal the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Fourth Appellate District of California.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Richard E. Nielsen, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief were John K. Van de Kamp, Attorney General, and Neal J. Gobar, Deputy Attorney General.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union by Steven R. Shapiro.

Michael W. McConnell argued the cause for appellant. With him on the brief were Charles R. Ajalat, Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., and Jesse H. Choper.

Association for Public Justice by Bradley P. Jacob; for the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability et al. by Samuel E. Ericsson, Michael J. Woodruff, and Forest D. Montgomery; for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California, Inc., by David M. Liberman, Robert C. Moest, and Barry A. Fisher; for the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. by Douglas Laycock; and for the National Taxpayers Union by Gale A. Norton.

IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

The Supreme Court held that:

"California's imposition of sales and use tax liability on appellant's sales of religious materials does not contravene the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment...

The collection and payment of the tax imposes no constitutionally significant burden on appellant's religious practices or beliefs under the Free Exercise Clause, which accordingly does not require the State to grant appellant a tax exemption...

Application of the California tax to appellant's sale of religious materials does not violate the Establishment Clause by fostering an excessive governmental entanglement with religion. The evidence of administrative entanglement is thin, since the Court of Appeal expressly found that, in light of appellant's sophisticated accounting staff and computerized accounting methods, the record did not support its assertion that the collection and payment of the tax impose severe accounting burdens on it. Moreover, although collection and payment will require some contact between appellant and the State, generally applicable administrative and recordkeeping burdens may be imposed on religious organizations without running afoul of the Clause... The fact that appellant must bear the cost of collecting and remitting the tax - even if the financial burden may vary from religion to religion - does not enmesh the government in religious affairs, since the statutory scheme requires neither the involvement of state employees in, nor on-site continuing inspection of, appellant's day-to-day operations. Most significantly, the imposition of the tax without an exemption for appellant does not require the State to inquire into the religious content of the items sold or the religious motivation for selling or purchasing them, since they are subject to the tax regardless of content or motive."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Fourth Appellate District of California.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the judgment of the Fourth Appellate District of California; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.