Supreme Court rejects Wiccans’ tax exemption challenge

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Wiccan group’s challenge to a state sales tax exemption for Bibles and other religious items faltered Thursday when the Florida Supreme Court decided it lacked authority to consider the issue after all.

The high court earlier agreed to take the case and even heard oral arguments. But it ruled in a brief 6-1 opinion that it found no conflict in appellate court rulings on the underlying issue of whether the Wiccans have the right, or “standing,” to challenge the law.

The Wiccan Religious Cooperative of Florida had appealed a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal that it lacked standing.

The high court wrote that other appellate rulings, which had appeared to be in conflict on that issue, actually dealt with the narrower topic of “taxpayer standing,” the concept that those who pay taxes can challenge tax law. Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis dissented from the unsigned opinion without explanation.

Wiccan lawyer Heather Morcroft declined immediate comment.

The Supreme Court’s decision sidestepped the constitutional issue raised by the Wiccan appeal. Morcroft had argued the tax exemption aids religious organizations in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause that prohibits state-sponsored religion.

Kevin Shaughnessy, a lawyer for two religious publications, The Florida Catholic and The Florida Baptist Witnesses, had joined the state in defending the tax exemptions. He was pleased with Thursday’s decision.

“I suspect there’s always a possibility there could be other challenges to the statute, but we believe it is constitutionally sound,” Shaunnessy said.

At the oral argument in June, Shaughnessy and Florida Deputy Solicitor General James McKee argued the law does not violate the First Amendment because certain nonreligious publications, although not all, get the same tax break.

They also contended that the Wiccans lack standing to challenge the law because they are not harmed by it as the appellate court had concluded. That’s not exactly the same as taxpayer standing, though, said JoAnn Carrin, spokeswoman for the Florida attorney general’s office.

Initially a trial judge had ruled the Wiccans did have standing to sue but then upheld the exemption. An appeals court then reversed that decision because of the standing issue. The Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court, leaving the constitutional question unresolved.

The Wiccans, who follow an earth-based belief system or religion, once qualified for the exemption on items sold by the cooperative. They sued on Halloween 2000 after losing their exemption because they did not own a place of worship as required by state regulations.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
AP, via the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, USA
Oct. 26, 2006
Bill Kaczor

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