The Common Good
April 2004

The Lawyer, the Bible, and the Governor

by Susan Pace Hamill | April 2004

How the Bible, 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 codethe most regressive and harsh on the working poor of any in the countryled 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 continueswith 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.

Riley was elected and his tax reform plan, Amendment One, came out. A lot of people were shocked, especially Riley's traditional supporters. I read the plan top to bottom, in all its complexity, and deemed it a significant first step, or in baseball metaphor a single in the direction of fairness to low-income people. You win more ball games with singles than home runs, and a single is much better than an out. I was a 100-percent unabashed supporter of the plan. I wrote op-eds saying that voting yes was the only moral option. My position was that every Christian-believing, Bible-following, decent Alabamian needed to vote for this.

Before the Riley plan came out, the Christian Coalition of Alabama launched a slander attack on me. I consulted with the political science department [at the University of Alabama]. They told me "your instinct is to ignore this because it's hogwash, but that's the wrong instinct." So I took on the Christian Coalition. I said to newspapers, "Let me tell you how much of this is a lie." I also went to the divinity school for help. After much discussion and a fairly lengthy faculty meeting, they ended up issuing a unanimous public resolution supporting me and my work and urging all of Alabama's Christians to join in the efforts to reform the state's unjust taxes. That was an enormous amount of courage for the Beeson faculty—they took the Christian Coalition on. They stood behind me.

The Christian Coalition of Alabama, in this case, was using faith as a fig leaf for someone's greed. They are funded by the big timber special interests, but we can't prove it because Alabama disclosure laws are so lax. They try to discredit me by saying, "Well, she's wrong because it's up to the church to take care of the poor. She's wrong because low taxes are good for families." Which families? We are overtaxing the fire out of our poorest families. The Christian Coalition makes platitudes that are easily shot down and personal attacks that are just a sign of desperation. Nobody here has been able to touch the credibility of my work. They taught me that my future work better be ironclad, because at the federal level the special interests are meaner, greedier, and better funded.

NATIONALLY WE ARE headed for a tax policy of moving the burden downstream to the middle- and lower-middle classes. As a tax person, when I look at the ideas and the policies put out by this administration, they are equating a minimum infrastructure with some kind of welfare state.

I am not in favor of steeply progressive rates, of high tax burdens overall, and of a generous welfare state. That is not defensible under the Judeo-Christian approach that I take. You could defend it under other Judeo-Christian theory, such as liberation theology, but I'm not going there.

My goal is to seriously look at our national tax policy and take the position that we are not thinking and talking about this from a moral framework. We are thinking about this solely from an economic "money is God" framework. We're talking about people, not dogs and cats. We're talking about human beings made in the image of God. Whether or not the recipient deserves it is irrelevant. This is very important. People have said, "Why should I be concerned with people who are lazy?" My response is that if you're pagan, you don't have to be, depending on what kind of pagan you are. But if you're Christian, you must be.

We are all in the image, and what does that mean? It means that your faith in God and your relationship is not a one-way street, it's a triangle situation. You've got God, and you, and the others in the image. And they're connected to God. It is a triangle you can't break. So to disregard others, to treat them as something less than the image, is a sin directly against the Maker. You cannot divorce the connection.

When you start talking about community, taxes are an important element, because you're not going to run an infrastructure from charitable contributions; we're too greedy for that! You've got to run it through the arm of the law, and that brings in justice. Justice in the community means a minimum chance of improving one's lot if you're at the bottom. No matter how despicable you think they are, Jesus says you have to love them anyway, and that's that minimum bar.

This is according to an orthodox, Judeo-Christian, biblically based, evangelical, divine command, ethical approach - you can not get more conservative than that. It's not about class. It's about the standard that we will not dip below with regard to any human being. If that standard is set by mammon and the market, you're not operating under any godly principles. For that matter, you'd probably flunk a whole bunch of other principles too—virtue theory, Immanuel Kant, even utilitarianism. You can't take a "starve the beast" [anti-tax advocates consider the government a beast to be starved] position that wipes out minimum nets for education and basic inoculations and call yourself moral. In my federal work I am going to talk about the other major ways of thinking ethically besides Judeo-Christian. I completely agree with [New York Times columnist] Adam Cohen, who wrote, "So goes Alabama, so may go the nation" as the last sentence of one of his op-eds.

Amendment One was defeated, but the fight is not over. I've wondered what further obligations I have personally, as a professor who knows a lot about this and is a sincere, believing Christian who is trying to live out my life given what that means. I stewed over that for a month and a half; friends of mine said, "Just be patient; it will be revealed."

It was revealed to me, by a wonderful man down in Geneva County. Geneva County is at the bottom of the state in the wiregrass region, near the Florida border. It's a relatively poor area. Eighty-five percent of Genevans voted against Amendment One. Joe Paul, a small-town lawyer—sort of the Atticus Finch of Geneva—called me up and said, "Would you consider coming to Geneva?"

With the help of Joe Paul, his girlfriend, and her buddies, I didn't only do Rotary, I did a Wednesday night church, a town meeting, the high school, the drug store soda fountain on the town square, and Doc's radio show broadcast throughout the county. I stayed with the high school librarian, who's a pillar of the church where I spoke. The point of it was, don't just breeze in and out as some outsider. In order to win support for the reforms that are necessary to pull Alabama off the bottom, you have to reach a certain grassroots level of community leaders and impress upon them that it's up to them to carry everybody else. Now I understand my obligation—I have to find the Joe Pauls in the other 60 or so rural counties and get them to bring me in. That's not easy.

WHAT DO WE DO now? If you want to see the end result of bad tax policy, which is also immoral tax policy, just look down here at us. The least among us are suffering the worst. We may see draconian cuts that will turn poor senior citizens out of nursing homes because Alabama can't match the federal share of Medicare coverage. The easiest way to get more revenue here is to raise sales taxes on groceries and the like, which are unfortunately already sky-high and the most regressive. This all gets down to the property tax, especially big timber. The largest of the big timber companies are robbing us blind. When you have low gross retail sales, because your economy is basically based on big timber, you're not even going to get anything from sales tax increases except further oppression of the mothers that have to buy milk.

The knowledge that our taxes are grossly unfair is not a new thing. I'm not the only one in Alabama that has ever thought about or written this. But my work did two things that were new. The most important is that it made the moral link to Judeo-Christian values. But I also documented extensively the big timber and the schools situation, adding some indicting statistics to just how little big timber is paying. We all know we're being robbed, but my study has very specific information; less than 2 percent of the property tax is paid by people who own 71 percent of the land—that wasn't known.

My hope is that we can get to a long-term solution before it becomes more or less impossible—at some point you sink so low that you can't get back up again. You can talk about that from an economic point of view, you can talk about that biblically; that's the whole message of the prophets. And that's been one of the warnings that I've issued. At some point we are not going to be able to recover, and we will be judged. Morally speaking.

Tax Reform and the Demands of Faith

TODAY OVER 90 PERCENT of Alabama's population practices Christianity in some form. However, when one examines the suffering and hardship Alabama's tax structure inflicts on the poorest and neediest among us, one cannot fail to see the enormous gap that exists between what God's moral values demand and what we have allowed our state to become.

The book of Genesis (1:27; 4:9; 9:5-6), revealing that God created all people in His image, equates the unjust treatment of fellow human beings as a wrong committed against God Himself, for God's image may be seen in even the poorest and neediest people among us. To sin against the poor is to sin against God.

Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy forbid numerous actions, such as taking a cloak or a millstone (which were needed in the ancient world to survive and earn a living) as a pledge for debt, charging interest, holding back wages, selling food at a profit, and using dishonest scales and measurements, as specific but not the only examples of economic oppression.

God also requires that safety nets be created to allow poor and powerless persons a minimum opportunity to meet their basic needs and improve their lives. Certain rights to harvest from the land of others and secure ownership of their own land (which was the way to secure economic well being in the ancient world) are among specific examples in the Bible. Alabama's tax structure fails to come close to meeting the moral demands that God has revealed for us in the Bible. Alabama's income tax takes a greater portion of the scarce resources of Alabama's lowest wage earners, while the highest income-earning Alabamians are able to significantly lighten their tax burden with benefits that most other states and the federal government do not allow. Alabama's sales taxes, with rates among the highest in the nation that do not exempt even the most basic necessities, such as food, significantly increase the heavy burden already imposed on the poor by the unfair income tax structure.

In property taxes, timber, representing 71 percent of Alabama's landmass and earning substantial profits, escapes with the lightest share, less than 2 percent of property taxes, averaging no more than $1 an acre. Because of the inadequate property tax revenues, Alabama is unable to adequately fund its public schools, thus denying children of the poorest Alabamians, the neediest and most powerless among us, a minimum opportunity to improve their lives. By allowing the wealthiest Alabamians to escape with the lightest tax burden, while imposing oppressive levels of income and sales taxes on the poorest Alabamians, our tax structure is the sort of system condemned by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus as inconsistent with God's word.

The Tax Reform and the Demands of Faith excerpt is based on a condensed version of Susan Pace Hamill's article "An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" in the Alabama Law Review and is reprinted with permission from Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. The complete article can be found at www.law.ua.edu/directory/bio/shamill.html.

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