Unjustly Taxed: The Bible and Politics in Alabama

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WHEN HAS a master's thesis in theology ever spurred a governor to trod to amend his state's constitution? Perhaps only in the case of Susan Pace Hamill, whose concern for justice and knowledge of tax law led her to write The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians, a biblical critique of Alabama's tax code. Hamill wrote the thesis--which later became a pamphlet--in 2001 as part of a sabbatical year at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham. She was on leave from the University of Alabama Law School.

Hamill's arguments caught the attention of Republican Governor Bob Riley, who in 2003 led a movement to make taxes less burdensome for the poor. Though Hamill feared that the proposal did not go far enough, she publicly campaigned for it as a step in the right direction. Riley was explicit in saying that his own Bible-based beliefs, about Christians' duty to care for the poor inspired him to take his stance.

However, Alabama voters were not persuaded. They rejected the referendum by a 2-to-1 margin. It was staunchly opposed by the Christian Coalition of Alabama.

We spoke to Hamill about her moral critique of taxes in Alabama and about her experience with making biblical arguments on a public issue.

What specifically is unfair about Alabama's tax law?

First, Alabama has sales taxes that reach as much as 11 percent on staples like bread and milk. Sales taxes always take a comparatively bigger bite from those with fewer resources. Alabama relies on sales taxes for more than half of its revenue. The national average is around a third.

Second, the state income tax applies to many who are already in poverty. Incomes as little as $4,600 a year are subject to taxation. A family of four whose income is exempt from federal income tax is hit up for nearly $500 in state income tax.

Finally, property taxes in the state are the lowest per capita in the nation, and taxes on the most valuable properties are almost nonexistent. It's bad not to tax a $100,000 house enough. It's far worse not to levy much tax on a 200,000-acre timber farm that is producing tons of money. Seventy-one percent of the land is covered with timber, and that class of property pays less than 2 percent of what the state collects in property tax revenue. And we treat the 200,000-acre farm owned by Westinghouse or Gulf State Paper as if it were no different from Farmer's Joe's 200-acre farm. Corporations pay less than a dollar an acre.

Meanwhile, close to 90 percent of public schools have been rated D or F in spending per student. When you get into the rural areas it's even worse.

How in the world are you going to get minimally adequate revenue when you practically exempt your wealthiest land from anything close to fair taxation?

How do your opponents--who also wanted to use biblical language--respond to your arguments for fairness in tax law?

Their response was mostly to attack me as a carpetbagger or worse. They said that it's up to the church to take care of the poor and that low taxes help people do that. They said I obviously wanted to increase taxes and hurt families.

Let's consider that argument. First, does charity replace justice? The answer is clearly no. You can have a decent amount of charity going on in the midst of unjust laws. An A+ record in charity can't tuna an F in injustice into a C average. Things don't work that way. And all the charity in the world is not going to produce the fairness in taxation we need. People are just too greedy to give things up voluntarily.

Any reasonable reading of the biblical account of the Fall teaches us that on our own we're not going to do the right thing, and we're certainly not going to voluntarily give up what we should. That's why tax laws exist.

I was concerned about families. I was talking about lowering taxes for a lot of families and raising taxes for others so that the result would be just. …