Follett v. Town of McCormick/Dissent Roberts

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United States Supreme Court

321 U.S. 573


 Argued: Feb. 11, 1944. --- Decided: March 27, 1944

Separate opinion of Mr. Justice ROBERTS, Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER and Mr. Justice JACKSON.

The present decision extends the rule announced in Jones v. Opelika, 319 U.S. 103, 63 S.Ct. 890, 87 L.Ed. 1290, and Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 63 S.Ct. 870, 891, 87 L.Ed. 1292, 146 A.L.R. 81.

The ordinance in question is not, in the words of the First Amendment, a law 'prohibiting the free exercise' of religion. At the outset it should be observed that the ordinance is not discriminatory. It lays a tax on the pursuit of occupations by which persons earn their living in the Town of McCormick. It does not single out persons pursuing any given occupation and exempt others. If it were attacked as a denial of the equal protection of the laws the contention would be frivolous. [1] There is no suggestion that the purpose is other than to raise revenue necessary for the support of government from all who enjoy the service and protection of government, and to adjust the tax laid on the appellant in the light of the aid he derives from such service and protection.

Secondly, the ordinance lays no onerous burden on the occupation of the appellant or any other citizen. The tax in question is wholly unlike that considered in Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 56 S.Ct. 444, 80 L.Ed. 660, which had the unmistakable purpose of hitting at one out of many occupations and hitting so hard as to discourage or suppress the pursuit of that calling. The court there said: (p. 250 of 297 U.S., page 449 of 56 S.Ct., 80 L.Ed. 660)

'It is not intended by anything we have said to suggest that the owners of newspapers are immune from any of the ordinary forms of taxation for support of the government. But this is not an ordinary form of tax, but one single in kind, with a long history of hostile misuse against the freedom of the press.'

What then is the law under attack? It is a revenue measure applying generally to those earning their living in the community. It is a monetary exaction reasonably related to the cost of maintaining society by governmental protection, which alone renders civil liberty attainable.

Follett is not made to pay a tax for the exercise of that which the First Amendment has relieved from taxation. He is made to pay for that for which all others similarly situated must pay, an excise for the occupation of street vending. Follett asks exemption because street vending is, for him, also part of his religion. As a result, Follett will enjoy a subsidy for his religion. He will save the contribution for the cost of government which everyone else will have to pay.

The present decision extends and reaches beyond what was decided in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, supra. There the community asserted the right to subject transient preachers of religion to taxation; there the court emphasized the 'itinerant' aspect of the activities sought to be subjected to the exaction. The emphasis there was upon the casual missionary appearances of Jehovah's Witnesses in the town and the injustice of subjecting them to a general license tax. Here, a citizen of the community, earning his living in the community by a religious activity, claims immunity from contributing to the cost of the government under which he lives. The record shows appellant 'testified that he obtained his living from the money received from those with whom he placed books, that he had no other source of income.'

Unless the phrase 'free exercise', embodied in the First Amendment, means that government must render service free to those who earn their living in a religious calling, no reason is apparent why the appellant, like every other earner in the community, should not contribute his share of the community's common burden of expense. In effect the decision grants not free exercise of religion, in the sense that such exercise shall not be hindered or limited, but, on the other hand, requires that the exercise of religion be subsidized. Trinity Church, owning great property in New York City, devotes the income to religious ends. Must it, therefore, be exempt from paying its fair share of the cost of government's protection of its property?

We cannot ignore what this decision involves. If the First Amendment grants immunity from taxation to the exercise of religion it must equally grant a similar exemption to those who speak and to the press. It will not do to say that the Amendment, in the clause relating to religion, is couched in the imperative and, in the clause relating to freedom of speech and of press, is couched in the comparative. The Amendment's prohibitions are equally sweeping. [2] If exactions on the business or occupation of selling cannot be enforced against Jehovah's Witnesses they can no more be enforced against publishers or vendors of books, whether dealing with religion or other matters of information. The decision now rendered must mean that the guarantee of freedom of the press creates an immunity equal to that here upheld as to teaching or preaching religious doctrine. Thus the decision precludes nonoppressive, nondiscriminatory licensing or occupation taxes on publishers, and on news vendors as well, since, without the latter, the dissemination of views would be impossible. This court disavowed any such doctrine with respect to freedom of the press in Grosjean v. American Press Co., supra, and it is unthinkable that those who publish and distribute for profit newspapers and periodicals should suggest that they are in a class apart, untouchable by taxation upon their enterprises for the support of the government which makes their activities possible.

Not only must the court, if it is to be consistent, accord to dissemination of all opinion, religious or other, the same immunity, but, even in the field of religion alone, the implications of the present decision are startling. Multiple activities by which citizens earn their bread may, with equal propriety, be denominated an exercise of religion as may preaching or selling religious tracts. Certainly this court cannot say that one activity is the exercise of religion and the other is not. The materials for judicial distinction do not exist. It would be difficult to deny the claims of those who devote their lives to the healing of the sick, to the nursing of the disabled, to the betterment of social and economic conditions, and to a myriad other worthy objects, that their respective callings, albeit they earn their living by pursuing them, are, for them, the exercise of religion. Such a belief, however earnestly and honestly held, does not entitle the believers to be free of contribution to the cost of government, which itself guarantees them the privilege of pursuing their callings without governmental prohibition or interference.

We should affirm the judgment.


^1  Clark v. City of Titusville, 184 U.S. 329, 22 S.Ct. 382, 46 L.Ed. 569; South-western Oil Co. v. Texas, 217 U.S. 114, 121, 30 S.Ct. 496, 498, 54 L.Ed. 688; Bradley v. City of Richmond, 227 U.S. 477, 33 S.Ct. 318, 57 L.Ed. 603.

^2  'Congress shall make no law * * * prohibiting the free exercise (of religion); or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; * * *.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).