Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization of California 493 U.S. 378 (1990)
JIMMY SWAGGART MINISTRIES v. BOARD OF EQUALIZATION OF CALIFORNIA 493 U.S. 378 (1990)
In conjunction with its evangelistic activities in the state of California, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries sold religious books, tapes, records, and other merchandise. The group agreed to pay state sales tax on the nonreligious merchandise sold, but maintained that merchandise with specific religious content—such as Bibles, sermons, and Bible study manuals—were exempt from taxation on the basis of the first amendment. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, holding that application of a sales tax to the religious merchandise did not violate either the free exercise clause or the excessive entanglement provision read into the establishment clause by the lemon test.
The Court distinguished the case from prior precedents that had invalidated the application of general licensing fees to those who sold and distributed religious materials door-to-door. In both murdock v. pennyslvania (1943) and Follett v. McCormick (1944), the Court had objected to such licensing fees because they acted as a prior retraint on the free exercise of religion. In the same cases, however, the Court made clear that the First Amendment did not exempt religious groups from generally applicable taxes on income and property. The Court reaffirmed that principle here, noting that the tax under attack was a general levy on revenues raised from the sale of certain products. The Court acknowledged that in some cases a generally applicable tax of this sort might "effectively choke off an adherent's religious practices," but reserved for the future a determination on whether such a tax would violate the free exercise clause.
John G. West, Jr.