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U.S. Supreme Court

Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization, 493 U.S. 378 (1990)

Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization of California

No. 88-1374

Argued Oct. 31, 1989

Decided Jan. 17, 1990

493 U.S. 378


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.


1. 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. Pp. 493 U. S. 384-397.

(a) 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. Appellant misreads Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U. S. 105, and Follett v. McCormick, 321 U. S. 573, which, although holding flat license taxes on commercial sales unconstitutional with regard to the evangelical distribution of religious materials, nevertheless specifically stated that religious activity may constitutionally be subjected to a generally applicable income or property tax akin to the California tax at issue. Those cases apply only where a flat license tax operates as a prior restraint on the free exercise of religious belief. As such, they do not invalidate California's generally applicable sales and use tax, which is not a flat tax, represents only a small fraction of any sale, and applies neutrally to all relevant sales regardless of the nature of the seller or purchaser, so that there is no danger that appellant's chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 493 U. S. 379

religious activity is being singled out for special and burdensome treatment. Moreover, the concern in Murdock and Follett that flat license taxes operate as a precondition to the exercise of evangelistic activity is not present here, because the statutory registration requirement and the tax itself do not act as prior restraints -- no fee is charged for registering, the tax is due regardless of preregistration, and the tax is not imposed as a precondition of disseminating the message. Furthermore, since appellant argues that the exercise of its beliefs is unconstitutionally burdened by the reduction in its income resulting from the presumably lower demand for its wares (caused by the marginally higher price generated by the tax) and from the costs associated with administering the tax, its free exercise claim is in significant tension with Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U. S. 680, 490 U. S. 699, which made clear that, to the extent that imposition of a generally applicable tax merely decreases the amount of money appellant has to spend on its religious activities, any such burden is not constitutionally significant because it is no different from that imposed by other generally applicable laws and regulations to which religious organizations must adhere. While a more onerous tax rate than California's, even if generally applicable, might effectively choke off an adherent's religious practices, that situation is not before, or considered by, this Court. Pp. 493 U. S. 384-392.

(b) 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. See e.g., Hernandez, supra, at 490 U. S. 696-697. 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. Pp. 493 U. S. 392-397. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 493 U. S. 380

2. The merits of appellant's Commerce and Due Process Clause claim are not properly before, and will not be reached by, this Court, since both the trial court and the Court of Appeal ruled that the claim was procedurally barred because it was not presented to the Board as required by state law. See, e.g., Michigan v. Long, See, e.g., Michigan v. Long, 463 U. S. 1032, 463 U. S. 1041-1042. Appellant has failed to substantiate any claim that the California courts in general apply the procedural bar rule and a pertinent exception in an irregular, arbitrary, or inconsistent manner. Pp. 493 U. S. 397-399.

204 Cal.App.3d 1269, 250 Cal.Rptr. 891, affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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