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Wiccans challenge tax break

Tax-free sales of Bibles, religious song books, votive candles and chalices could end if a Wiccan group gets its way.

Published June 9, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — The Wiccan Religious Cooperative of Florida argued before the Florida Supreme Court on Friday that government should not be in the business of deciding what is and isn’t religious because that violates the First Amendment.

The Orlando group, which follows an earth-based belief system, has challenged the sales tax exemption on religious materials. It says the exemption violates the  clause against state-sponsored religion.

“This particular type of exemption is so blatantly unconstitutional and such an obvious abuse of the state’s power that the court must step in and correct it,” said the group’s attorney, Heather Morcroft, who is a Wiccan.

Florida deputy solicitor general James McKee, who was joined by an attorney for a Catholic and a Baptist publication, argued that the Wiccans’ case should be thrown out because the Wiccans now qualify for the tax exemption. They also argued that the exemption applies to all religious literature and worship items.

The case dates to 1999, when the Wiccan group went to renew a sales tax exemption. Wiccans didn’t qualify as a religious institution because they lacked a permanent place of worship.

On Halloween 2000, the Wiccans sued in Leon County and a judge eventually agreed that the group could sue but ruled the tax exemption constitutional.

The 1st District Court of Appeal said the Wiccans didn’t have standing to sue because the state broadened its rules and the group was no longer harmed.

On Friday, justices asked pointed questions, mostly about whether the Wiccans had standing to sue.

“If I published a secular book, and I paid taxes on it, then I could bring this action challenging the statute?” asked Justice Peggy Quince.

“I believe that they probably could under this declaratory judgment standard, but they’d also have to be a taxpayer,” said McKee, who maintained that the Wiccans are not a taxpaying group and so cannot bring a constitutional challenge like other taxpayers.

The state Supreme Court could take months to decide whether the group has standing to sue and might not even address whether the sales tax exemption is constitutional.

[Last modified June 9, 2006, 21:58:26]

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