Follett v. Town of McCormick, S.C., 321 U.S. 573 (1944)

2012-06-22 09:59:17

Mr. Lester Follett, a member of Jehovah’s Witness faith, devoted his life to preaching. In this capacity he traveled door-to-door in his hometown of McCormick, South Carolina, and accepted contributions for the sale of religious texts. Follett had no other source of income. The town of McCormick required licensure for book salesmen with a fee amounting to $1.00 per day or $15.00 per year. Mr. Follett claimed the fee imperiled his freedom of religion and refused to remit the licensure fee. Although precedent leaned in his favor, the South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, narrowly interpreting past cases as only applying to transient booksellers (see Murdock v. Pennsylvania 319 U.S. 113 and Jones v. Opelika 319 U.S. 103).

Justice Douglas delivered for the Court a verdict in favor of Mr. Follett. Noting that similarly to Murdock and Opelika, Mr. Follett was ‘‘engaged in a ‘religious’ rather than ‘commercial’ venture,’’ his activities cannot be measured ‘‘by the standards governing the sales of wares and merchandise.’’ Justice Douglas narrows the question to whether a license tax is applicable to a preacher in his hometown and concludes that full-time preachers may not be taxed for commercial activities directly related to their evangelism. He writes: ‘‘Freedom of religion is not merely reserved for those with a long purse. Preachers of more orthodox faiths are not engaged in commercial undertakings because they are dependant on their calling for a living.’’

Justices Roberts, Frankfurter, and Jackson dissented, citing two main points. (1) The license tax did not affect only preachers, but all street vendors, and thus did not discriminate against religions expression. (2) The tax exemption would potentially open the door for entire churches to claim tax exemption from their commercial holdings.


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 113
  • Jones v. Opelika, 319 U.S. 103

See also Graham v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 490 U.S. 680 (1989)