In the Beginning ... the Lawyer, the Bible, and the Governor: How a Newspaper Article and Simple Biblical Ethics Put a Southern Law Professor at the Cutting Edge of a Tax Reform Movement

Sojourners Magazine, April 2004 | Go to article overview

In the Beginning ... the Lawyer, the Bible, and the Governor: How a Newspaper Article and Simple Biblical Ethics Put a Southern Law Professor at the Cutting Edge of a Tax Reform Movement


Susan Pace Hamill, a professor at the University of Alabama Law School specializing in federal corporate tax law, had previously worked at two prestigious law firms and at the IRS. Her research on the Alabama tax code--the most regressive and harsh on the working poor of any in the country--led her to write "An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics." Her article convinced Alabama's conservative Republican Gov. Bob Riley to propose a state constitutional amendment that would have revolutionized tax policy in Alabama. The proposal failed in the 2003 vote, but the reform work continues--with the potential of spurring a nationwide movement for tax justice. This is her story, as told to Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter.

I had lived in Alabama seven years, which has more taxes than you could shake a stick at, and I had never focused on the state and local inequity. I'm not proud of that. However, I did notice that the first property tax bill for our house was so low that I thought it was for the month instead of the year. I read grocery sales slips thinking, "That's too high on groceries, that's not right." And every year for state income tax I would get refunds while I was writing checks to Uncle Sam.

Meanwhile, my kids are attending a C- funded school system, one of the few in the state I deem minimally adequate, and every year the teachers are begging for donations to cover things. The signs of inequity were there, but I refused to put them together because I didn't view it as my problem. I would think, "I'm not a state and local tax specialist. I'm a federal person--I'm too busy."

Then I took sabbatical to attend Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, a primarily Southern Baptist institution. At Beeson, another sign came under my nose: A little newspaper article about a big Washington, D.C. think-tank study on income taxes that ranked Alabama the worst. It stated, "Alabama's Income Tax Least Fair," and cited a $4,600 threshold [at which income-tax liability begins]. My first instinct was "That has to be a misprint! Even if we're the worst, that can't possibly be true." I was horrified to find that it was true. I got my hands on another source, a 30-page report put out by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. That report confirmed the first source, giving a broad-brush picture of the major points in what struck me as an ironclad indictment. Then I spoke to Frank Thielman, a Beeson professor I respected. I said, "We're living in the Bible Belt here, and this tax inequity is a product of our laws, and our laws are a product of our voting, which is a product of our people. So we're talking about a bunch of voting Christians tolerating this. There's something wrong here, there's a gap."

I asked him if I had a case to attack this on biblical grounds. Frank said, "Not only is your case ironclad, but you should change your thesis and do this topic, because you're the only one who can."

IF YOU'RE GOING to attack something morally on biblical principles, you'd better prove your case with 10 witnesses and DNA. I remember the day when the corporate-theory thesis topic I'd been planning went out the window, and it's good-bye Harvard--Alabama Law Review, here I come! I remember being in despair, because I knew I was going to have to do a lot of empirical research.

My work became public in August 2002. A newspaper reporter convinced me to let him see the draft I had given to the Alabama Law Review. He published a story in the Mobile Register, and it just kind of blew up. Everyone wanted a copy--all the other newspapers were into it.

At the time, Bob Riley and Don Siegelman were running for governor. Riley, the very conservative Republican, had not spoken to me--and in fact, he still has not; I am a huge political liability. All of the major supporters who got him in office hate my guts. But Riley did say publicly during the campaign, when pressed by an Alabama Public TV interviewer, that I was right, that our taxes are immoral under Judeo-Christian principles. …

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