A new Florida statute (L. 2006, H 7183 (c. 164)) takes effect on the first of July. It provides an exemption from ad valorem tax for the use of property owned by a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization to "exhibit, illustrate, and interpret Biblical manuscripts, codices, stone tablets, and other Biblical archives, provide live and recorded demonstrations, explanations, reenactments, and illustrations of Biblical history and worship; and exhibit times, places, and events of Biblical history and significance." Id.
Now, this is clearly not a federal tax issue (the State is merely using the federal tax-exempt organization category as a part of its definition for the tax expenditure). But is it a constitutional one? Is it really cricket for a state to single out events and exhibits related to the Bible for a tax exemption? Yes, parts of the Bible are sacred to both Jews and Christians, but isn't this providing the imprimatur of the state selectively to the Judeo-Christian heritage over all other religious heritages (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.)? Maybe the legislators who passed this law, and Jeb Bush who signed it into law on June 9, would argue that it is merely a form of support for a particular type of historical scholarship/experience that just happens to be closely connected to fundamentalist Christian views.
But the facts, as always, are telling. This legislation was passed to aid a specific entity--a Christian theme park in Orlando, Florida called the Holy Land Experience. See this discussion in the St. Petersburg Times. The park is quite profitable, and the local county in which it is located tried to tax it (about $300,000 a year). The park argued that the profits financed its Christian ministry and so it was entitled to a property exemption. The park won the first round in court, but the county appealed. Then the legislature decided to step in and make sure that the institution couldn't be taxed. The county has now conceded defeat on the issue and dropped its suit for back taxes. See Holy Land Experience Wins Final Round. The Republican state senator who sponsored the bill said it was intended to cover only the Christian theme park and that it had been "stiffly worded" to ensure that object. Id. But, of course, there are always loopholes that can be exploited. Apparently a creationist group that runs a dinosaur park is trying to become eligible for the exemption now. Id.
Even conceding arguendo the constitutional concern (i.e., a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause because the state is selectively endorsing a particular religion), I wonder about the wisdom of this kind of preferential treatment for activities so closely associated with evangelical Christians today. We are a pluralistic society with people whose roots lie in many different cultural and religious heritages. Where is the state regard for the Koran, the Vedas and the history of religious societies and worship that those documents represent? Our basic notion of respect for individuals depends on respectful treatment of each person's core beliefs and values, even though they may differ from our own. Florida seems to have missed the boat here.
The Tax Foundation doesn't much like the exemption, either (one of the few times our positions are not diametrically opposed). Predictably, it doesn't express much concern for the impact on democracy, but it does note the market distortions when one theme park gets an exemption because of its religious affiliation and all the others have to compete against that favored position. See this item on the Tax Foundation site.
By the way, this is not the only time that Florida has been in hot water over tax exemptions applying preferentially to religions. There is also a lawsuit underway by a Wiccan group that is contesting the Florida sales and use tax exemption for religious books. See here. The Wiccan group apparently was charged sales tax on a Satanic Bible but not on a Christian Bible. Even though it is considered a church in Florida, the incident led it to contest the constitutionality of the statute that exempts religious publications from tax. The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. See this Florida Baptist Witness story (the paper filed an amicus brief in favor of the religioius tax exemption).
One has to wonder just which publications qualify as religious publications? The Bible, Koran, Torah. Is any publication by a seminarian or theologian or even a scholar in a religious studies department a religious publication? If so, why? If not, why not? What about a publication of the writings of Martin Buber? Is every publication by the Catholic Church a per se religious publication? What about publications by the State of Israel?
Apparently, one supporter of the religious materials tax exemption thinks that changes to court personnel (presumably, the Florida Supreme Court, but this could also reach the U.S. Supreme Court) guarantee a religion-friendly outcome to the case.
According to Mathew Staver, president of the right-wing Liberty Council, which has ... filed a brief in favor of the law, "In case the Wiccans haven't been paying attention lately, they should realize the times have changed. We have a new court." Carl Jones, Daily Business Review, Wiccan Lawsuit May Spell Toil, Taxes and Trouble for Fla. Justices (Nov. 21, 2005).
As someone who believes strongly in the importance of maintaining the separation of church and state, I find that statement worrisome. The Establishment Clause protects religious groups as well as those who are not religious. The trend towards bringing religion into the political discourse, funding religious groups with tax revenues (in ways that are not always careful to ensure that the tax funds are not being used to proselytyze), and providing special tax subsidies or exemptions for religious groups (especially for activities that are identified with Christian groups) suggests that we are forgetting the Salem witch trials and all the other problems that develop when there is no wall between church and state.