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Law Professor Pushes Tax Reform in Alabama

A paper labeling Alabama’s tax system sinful and reform a Christian duty is being hailed as a Magna Carta by a new movement to rewrite the state’s tax laws.

“An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics” says the state’s tax laws are unjust because they place an undue burden on the poor, while benefiting middle- and upper-income taxpayers.

Susan Pace Hamill, a 42-year-old law professor at the University of Alabama, wrote the article as a thesis for a master’s degree in theological studies at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School while on sabbatical in May 2002.

“Alabama’s tax structure fails to meet any reasonable definition of fairness and violates the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics,” Hamill wrote in her thesis, published last fall in the Alabama Law Review.

The 112-page paper is summarized in a brochure titled “The Least of These,” which is being circulated in churches across the state. Hamill, who attends Trinity United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa, has spoken in numerous churches and has been featured in newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.

Hamill’s paper has been cited by powerful political figures, including Republican Gov. Bob Riley, and is credited with mobilizing many of the state’s 8,000 churches on the issue of tax reform. Alabama’s Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Southern Baptists have joined hands to endorse changes to the tax code. Catholic and Jewish leaders have also affirmed the call.

While this isn’t the first attempt to change Alabama’s tax system, many observers believe involving churches might be the key to success. About 90 percent of Alabama’s citizens are professing Christians.

Jim Evans, pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala., and a longtime supporter of tax reform on biblical principles, describes Hamill as an “accidental prophet.”

Hamill says ethical principles found both in the Old Testament and teachings of Jesus “forbid the economic oppression of poor persons and require that such persons enjoy at least a minimum opportunity to improve their economic circumstances.”

Alabama’s regressive tax system, she argues, does the opposite.

A family of four in Alabama starts paying taxes after earning just $4,600 a year, the lowest exemption in the nation and far below the poverty line of $17,601. By comparison, the same family in neighboring Mississippi would be exempt from paying taxes until their income reached $19,600.

The tax rate schedule tops out at 5 percent and applies to income levels as low as $12,000, creating in effect a flat-tax structure that benefits most those with higher incomes.

Alabama is also one of few states to allow full deduction for federal taxes, allowing the wealthiest citizens to further reduce their tax burden. That costs the state substantial lost revenues. Local governments often make up the loss by adding to the state’s 4 percent sales tax. Sales taxes runs as high as 10 percent in some poor counties and provide more than half of all state revenues.

Property taxes, meanwhile, are lowest in the nation, about one third the national average. Property taxes account for as little as 5 percent of Alabama’s total revenues, contributing to chronic under-funding of public schools. That deprives poor children of adequate education, Hamill says, which is their best chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.

Loopholes favor the powerful timber industry, which is often described as the backbone of Alabama’s economy. Timber acres, which account for 71 percent of the state’s land mass, are taxed at less than a dollar per acre. Timber and agriculture acres provide 2 percent of the state’s total property taxes, despite generating huge profits for wealthy landowners.

Hamill says all Christians in Alabama have a moral obligation to support tax reform. Further, Christian legislators and religious leaders have a higher calling to seek justice for the poor and oppressed, she argues, citing Scripture. She chides both politicians who skirt the issue for fear of losing votes and preachers who avoid it so as not to rock the boat.

That argument doesn’t violate the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state, she says, because it appeals to individual Christians to act on their moral convictions and doesn’t impose those views on others.

The state’s five largest Christian organizations, including 3,100-church Alabama Baptist Convention, have adopted resolutions calling for reform of the state’s tax structure.

“There is considerable, credible evidence that Alabama’s tax structure places a disproportionate burden on the poorest of our citizens,” Alabama Baptist Convention president Mike McLemore said at a rally at the state capitol in January, according to a report in the Alabama Baptist.

Despite such widespread support in the Christian community, Hamill’s plan is opposed by the Religious Right.

“Reform seems to be a buzzword for new taxes,” said Twinkle Andress of Alabama Citizens for a Sound Economy. “Call it what it is. It’s a tax increase.”

John Giles of Alabama’s Christian Coalition says he agrees in principle that tax structures should benefit the poor but opposes tax reform. He says the solution to Alabama’s fiscal problems is to reduce spending.

“We need to cut out the pork completely,” Giles told the Tuscaloosa News. “Businesses and families are strapped right now. They don’t need higher taxes.”

Giles recently sent out a mass e-mail questioning Hamill’s views on abortion, a move widely perceived as a ploy to undermine the professor’s credibility with religious conservatives.

Hamill accused Giles of “bullying” and said the abortion issue is irrelevant to tax reform. “I am not about abortion. I am about tax reform,” she told the Birmingham News.

The faculty at Beeson Divinity School agreed. They responded with a faculty resolution supporting Hamill’s theological arguments for tax reform. The faculty resolution did not address her stand on abortion, but a spokesman said the faculty is pro-life.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.