Taking Care of the Least: Susan Pace Hamill's Odyssey to Reform Alabama’s Tax Code
By Jayson Whitehead
February 20, 2004
At the close of 2003, The New York Times named “Biblical Taxation” as one of the year’s most important ideas. The recognition capped a tumultuous year-and-a-half period for University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill, whose argument for tax reform based upon Christian principles galvanized debate—first in her native Alabama and then nationally, eventually being published in book form.
A former IRS attorney, Hamill was on sabbatical pursuing a Master’s of Theological Studies at Beeson Divinity School when she noticed an article in the local Birmingham paper detailing the state’s exceedingly low starting point for income tax. Alabama is notorious for a regressive tax system that perpetually makes the state one of the poorest in the Union. Families that make as little as $4,600 pay income tax in Alabama, while in neighboring Mississippi income tax does not kick in until $19,000. A New York Times piece reported that those in Alabama earning less than $13,000 pay almost 11 percent of their incomes—in state and local taxes. Those fortunate enough to earn more than $229,000, however, pay only 4 percent. An unusually high sales tax contributes to this slanted tax burden, while disproportionate property duties seem to flaunt their inequities. For example, the state’s powerful timber industry, which owns 71 percent of the land, pays only 2 percent of the property taxes (they are four times as high in Georgia). As a result, severely underfunded services like public education are as parched and cracked as a dried-up lake bed.
As Hamill discovered these details, she combined them with a growing knowledge of the Old and New Testaments to develop a Christian argument for tax reform. “Once I figured out the horrible inequity and injustice here in Alabama, as a tax professor and as a Christian I was quite unhappy with the situation,” she says. Her sense of purpose was based in part on the knowledge that over 90% of Alabama residents consistently profess to be Christians.
In the late summer of 2002, Hamill was putting the finishing touches on a law review article (originally her divinity school thesis) when she was contacted by a local reporter who had heard of the topic she was working on. After initial hesitation, Hamill agreed to let him see a draft. The following Sunday, the reporter’s related article appeared in the Mobile Register. By the next day, August 11, Hamill’s phone was ringing incessantly and her e-mail was overflowing. “Pandemonium hit,” she recalls. “People were coming out of the woodwork all over the state that I had never heard of.” The 112-page “An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics” sparked so many requests that the University of Alabama Law School was forced to post it online where it could be easily accessed.
Hamill makes a rather straightforward argument in her law review article. Cataloging all references to poverty in the Old and New Testaments, she concludes that the Bible uniformly mandates the eradication of poverty. She then argues that Alabama’s taxation scheme, analyzed in that light, is immoral because it actively works to keep people in poverty by overtaxing them and not offering them a “minimum opportunity” to alter their circumstances. And because such a high number of Alabamians claim to be Christians, Hamill writes that they have a moral imperative to bring about change in their tax system.
“The Scripture tells you what’s right and what’s wrong and the trick is figuring out what it said to the particular audience, what moral principle comes out of that, and how you apply that to the complex Twenty-first century problem,” Hamill says. “That is the approach I used in the article which is why it got so much stir down here because it couldn’t be ignored by faithful churchgoing people.”
Tax reform is one of the most contested issues nationwide, and Alabama’s system, no matter how ruinous, has been in place for decades. Proposed change of the kind Hamill advocates, especially that based on the teachings of the Bible, was bound to elicit reactions, both pro and con. She received opposition from the usual suspects, particularly the industries that were benefiting most from the current system. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many church leaders grasped the essence of her argument and their early support helped to build a grassroots effort to demand tax reform.
All this Hamill had planned for. What she did not count on was the fierce resistance from an organization that blends, often in indistinguishable fashion, the political and the religious. The Christian Coalition of Alabama (CCA), the state offshoot of the group Pat Robertson founded to bring religious influence into the legislative realm, is a powerful force in Alabama and very early on announced its opposition to Hamill’s proposal.
John Giles, the president of Alabama’s Christian Coalition, enunciated a number of positions against Hamill’s proposal in various interviews and press statements. “You have never seen us in the history of the Christian Coalition … on the affirmative side of a tax increase that puts additional burdens on the family,” he told the Birmingham Post-Herald. In regard to the incredible breaks large industry received, Giles offered a standard defense. “Low property taxes are an incentive for economic deployment,” he told the same paper. “Industry loves low property taxes because they can come in and create jobs.”
In March of 2003, the Coalition abandoned the generic attacks and issued a broadside against the law professor herself. In a statement titled “Bush Critic & Abortion Advocate Becomes Spokesman for Taxes and Morality,” the Coalition accused Hamill of having “strong ties to America’s most liberal abortion advocacy group.” The charge resulted from the Coalition’s discovery that Hamill had signed a petition distributed by NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Activist League) calling for President Bush to nominate judges who support Roe v. Wade. As the CCA saw it, this was enough to disqualify Hamill from any sort of moral position on any matter. “It destroys her legitimacy,” the release stated.
Hamill responded immediately by denying an association with NARAL in various newspaper interviews, even telling the Mobile Register that she did not know NARAL’s name until she learned it from Giles’ e-mail. A few days later, she clarified her position with an e-mail to her former faculty at Beeson Divinity School. “I do not support abortion, but I believe that laws are not the way to promote the most moral outcome in this area,” she wrote. “As a woman who understands the complexities of desperate situations and desperate people I cannot support laws that drove many women (usually poor women who could not afford to travel) to such horrible back alley abortions. As a lawyer, who is also a Christian and a woman, I cannot support laws that make abortion illegal but at the same time I urge moral activity that lessens abortions (through education, etc) and provide support for desperate people so that they have a real alternative other than an abortion.” Hamill concluded, “[A]s a law professor I had a duty to sign if I agreed; law professors cannot just sit back and avoid issues, we are guardians of the law even more than other lawyers.” Shortly thereafter, the Beeson faculty passed a resolution in support of Hamill, especially commending her “efforts at state tax reform” and calling upon other Christians to join “in supporting these efforts.”
Looking back on it, Hamill is still incensed by what she calls a “slander attack.” “That is not the sort of stuff that law professors are prepared for,” she says. The professor scoffs at those who offer a moral argument against abortion but would not support her tax reform idea. “The Christian right has no problem ranting and raving at people that they need to be cognizant of their faith and vote for candidates who want to make abortions illegal because that is against Scripture,” she says, her tone betraying her ire. “Yet for some reason voting for tax cuts for the rich that is going to burden those with lesser ability, that’s okay. Well, excuse me—I am not sure it is.”
If Hamill was surprised by the level of reaction her article received, she was completely unprepared for what followed. In May 2003, newly-elected governor Bob Riley announced an ambitious tax reform plan that took its main thrust from Hamill’s thesis. A Republican and avowed tax-cutter, Riley shocked his supporters and electrified the state’s tax debate when he proposed the largest tax increase in Alabama history. Riley’s radical plan would eliminate the state’s $675 million deficit and still raise hundreds of millions to pay for public schools and social services, while also shifting the overall tax burden from the poor to the wealthy. “Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us,” Riley told The Birmingham News. “We’ve got to take care of the poor.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time studying the New Testament, and it has three philosophies: love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you,” he stated in another interview. “I don’t think anyone can justify putting an income tax on someone who makes $4,600 a year.”
After the governor’s $1.2 billion plan was passed by the state legislature in June, the tax reform battle entered a whole new plane. With a September state-wide referendum looming, Hamill was suddenly thrust into the role of political advocate. “I was on the stump constantly,” she says. “Before the Riley bill I averaged about three events a week. Once the Riley bill hit, that jumped up to five pretty quickly and by the time the campaign was in dead heat, I was out almost every day.”
Detrimental to Hamill’s and Gov. Riley’s cause, their opponents happened to be two of the strongest forces in the state. Both the timber industry and the Alabama Farmers Federation, two groups whose members stood to lose millions of dollars under the proposed plan, strictly opposed the tax increase. Once again, the Christian Coalition of Alabama entered the fray. Blaming the state’s fiscal ruin on “years of poor stewardship and fiscal irresponsibility,” the CCA passed a resolution stating that they were “unable to support any new permanent tax proposals to cure historical systemic failures and poor public policy of reckless and unmerited spending habits.”
CCA head Giles also confronted the biblical arguments. “We know that Scripture says, ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ The big question is how much Caesar should get,” he said. “Never in Scripture does it say, ‘Render unto Caesar so he can take care of the poor.’ It is the church’s responsibility.”
Hamill still fumes at this position. “First of all, the rendering to Caesar line was grossly misused,” she says. “Jesus was not commenting on the fairness of the taxes or on whether you ought to be trying to make them more fair. What he was saying was you can’t use your religion as an excuse to fail to fulfill your obligations.”
“You have to look to other parts of the Scriptures for the principles of justice related to taxation,” she continues. “I will go so far as to say that ‘rendering unto Caesar’ is helpful for the reformers because it completely takes on the argument that all taxes are immoral. Jesus said the exact opposite. He said that taxes are necessary and you have to pay them. But that does not excuse unfair taxes if you can make them fair.”
Giles’ other position—that the church alone is responsible for the welfare of the poor—equally vexes Hamill. “There is an absolute obligation of people of faith to engage in what I call charitable works and beneficence,” she says. For the sake of argument, she accedes that Alabama is successful at beneficence. “But the Bible has another requirement called ‘justice.’ Justice does not have to do with how much money you give voluntarily for the poor or how you treat them or whether you do volunteer hours in your soup kitchens.”
Instead, Hamill says that justice refers to the structures of the community and how that community treats everybody. “It’s a more abstract thing,” she says. “And in a sense, justice—whether it’s present or absent—has to do with the state, the laws. Now, in 21st century America, the state is separate from the church. The state is responsible directly for justice.”
The law professor is quick to add that she is “not trying to merge church and state.” “My appeal is a moral appeal outside the construct of the state,” she clarifies. “It’s a moral appeal at the ground up to people that if they are true to their beliefs, that they have the right to push the state towards looking like our principles of justice. They have no excuse not to.”
The CCA’s pronounced position against Gov. Riley’s plan for tax reform set up an interesting conflict when the national Christian Coalition, directed by Roberta Combs, came out in support of the proposal. “The Christian Coalition of America supports Gov. Riley’s plan for tax reform, because it is clearly and unquestionably designed to help the least among us and asks those who are most able to pay their share,” said Combs in a statement. “At the same time, the governor’s proposal ensures the protection of important family programs and services that face imminent risk of significant funding cuts. We believe the governor’s proposal is both visionary and courageous.” Interestingly, Combs could not remember another instance of a state chapter breaking with the national Christian Coalition.
Other religious organizations joined in endorsing the plan. Alabama branches of the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches voiced their support. But, in a loss for Riley, the state’s largest denomination refused to commit one way or the other. Although the Baptist State Convention passed a resolution in 2000 urging reform of Alabama’s tax system, convention officers issued a statement in 2003 concluding that “diverse opinions” existed on the subject. Refusing to commit, the Baptist state president told a newspaper that “we are encouraging Baptists to seek God’s will in this matter through prayer.”
In hindsight, Hamill does not hold the Baptists’ wavering against them. “They were not engaging in whole fixed scale war against it in the way that the Christian Coalition of Alabama was.” As should be growing clear, Hamill saves her most righteous anger for those Christians in powerful positions who opposed her plan. Indeed, her thesis places the greatest burden for tax reform on the clergy. “I make it clear in my article that the religious leaders have the highest obligation of anybody because we are a community largely of religious people with democratic rights,” she explains. “And it’s clear based on our public policy that we are not exercising those democratic rights consistent with what our faith really requires, which means the religious leaders have done a terrible job educating and spiritually leading their flock.”
Surprisingly, Hamill says that she did not meet much resistance from religious hierarchy, at least not in public. “But many clergy privately said I made them very uncomfortable because they knew I was right,” she recalls. “I think it probably made the Pharisees of the religious community, à la the Christian Coalition of Alabama, really mad. They lashed out at me. It is a very powerful, provocative statement to say that the religious leaders have the highest responsibility.”
Part of Hamill’s lasting distaste results from the unqualified support for Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from many in the religious community, at the same time she was receiving so much grief from the same sects who were fighting for the pertinacious judge. “It was all very mixed up,” she surmises. “I think we need to stop putting so much energy concerning the display of the Ten Commandments and start putting more energy toward the obeying of them.”
“I would rather see all Alabamians—whether you are pro or against Roy Moore’s displaying of his monument in the court house—get off that fight and worry more about the substance of our community in terms of how we treat the poor,” she states. “We are as far away from what those Ten Commandments demand in a broad sense. A lot of people like to read those Commandments and view them as an isolated set of ten rules. You can’t do that.”
“The whole Roy Moore thing saddens me because when you look at our community from the outside, frankly we look rather hypocritical,” she concludes. “We can’t even practice our own principles but we are fighting over this monument.”
As hundreds of supporters crowded the Alabama State Courthouse to fight for Moore’s monument, Riley’s tax reform sputtered and stalled. In the end, harsh political realities seemed to seal the fate of the ambitious plan. As a congressman for six years, Riley had been a fierce proponent of tax cuts. As a result, his proposal as governor was seen as a defection, inevitably alienating some powerful Republican forces.
Opponents of the tax reform succeeded in depicting Riley’s plan in simple, direct terms. “Riley wants to raise your taxes” was the general theme of attacks, and it was naturally an effective one. On September 9, 2003, an overwhelming majority of Alabamians, including those whom the plan was designed to help, voted to keep their existing tax structure.
“A lot of the presentations I made were at churches. So I think that the religious community had gotten started but in terms of the bill and its failure, there was not enough time for it to really sink it in at the lowest possible level,” Hamill recounts. “You can’t win in a democracy from the top down, especially in a state like this.”
“You know, it had lots of components and complexities—some which were great fodder for the special interests to distort,” Hamill continues. “That is not enough time for real grassroots efforts to happen. The question now is will the grassroots efforts that had gotten started and was abruptly cut off continue on.”
While the loss dealt a mighty blow to Gov. Riley, Hamill has remained undeterred. In between teaching law classes, she is making visits throughout rural Alabama. “I go into the counties and really talk to the local leadership about the issue in a general way and their responsibility to carry the county when we get another chance to do something.”
Hamill is also working on broadening her tax reform argument for a national audience. “The national interest is coming,” she says. “I’ve got four trips coming up. The rural interest is tougher because you’ve got to get people to accept you and bring you in. It’s a whole different ball game. The rural ones I’ve got to beat the bushes for and there aren’t any niceties involved in a three-hour trip on the back roads to get to a county seat in the middle of the state.”
What seems to keep Susan Pace Hamill ever optimistic is the conviction that she is fulfilling a ministry mandated by her beliefs. “Your whole life in terms of your voluntary choices is based on your moral compass,” she says. “We are not dogs—I mean, we have higher moral reasoning ability and everybody whether they know it or not gets their moral compass from somewhere. So my basic argument is if somebody happens to be of faith that is where, by voluntary confession, they supposedly get their moral compass from.”
“And our tax system, both state, local and nationally, is a result of a participation in the democratic process,” she preaches on. “We do not live in a totalitarian regime. In the democratic process, we have voluntary choices. We can choose who to vote for. We can choose whether to vote or not. We can choose whether to get involved to a greater degree or not. If you are a Christian, you can’t check these moral principles at the door in your political process.”
To learn more about Susan Pace Hamill, visit her webpage on the University of Alabama's website.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.