Samford University The BelltowerAugust 2003

Samford Alumna Makes a Stand for the "Least of These"

"...this is the worst injustice I could have imagined in terms of how you structure your tax system..."

University of Alabama Law School professor and self-described “tax jock” Susan Pace Hamill might be sleeping soundly if not for Samford’s Beeson Divinity School. In 2001, the person she refers to as “the sleepy, pre-Beeson Hamill” enrolled in the school during a sabbatical year in order to earn a Master’s degree in Theological Studies and expand her academic specialty to encompass ethical issues. She had not foreseen how dramatically that education would change her life. “My work, and who I am in terms of being able to do this work, is a product of the Beeson Divinity School,” she said one tumultuous year after earning her degree.

Hamill’s alarm call came when her theological studies collided with the realities of Alabama’s tax structure. She had noticed Alabama’s high sales taxes and low property taxes, but had largely ignored the implications of state and local tax rates because they didn’t have a great impact on her life. When her children’s public school asked for donations for essential items, she simply gave freely and felt good about being a charitable person. Then, in the second semester of her theological education, Hamill read a newspaper article describing Alabama’s tax structure and finally awoke to the grim realities of the system in which a family of four begins paying income tax on an annual income of only $4,600; in which property taxes on timberland, which accounts for almost three-fourths of all the land in the state, is taxed at an average rate of $1 per acre per year and contributes only 2 percent of state property tax revenues; and in which the poorest 20 percent of families pay 10.3 percent of their annual incomes in state and local taxes, while the wealthiest 1 percent of families pay only 3.7 percent of their annual incomes in state and local taxes.

“I had ignored the inequities for seven years,” Hamill said. She quickly made up for the lost time, however, taking the advice of tax reform advocate and Cumberland Law School professor Howard Walthall and paying a visit to the Samford-based Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA). She said even a cursory examination of the data PARCA had collected led her to conclude that “this is the worst injustice I could have imagined in terms of how you structure your tax system.”

As it came time to choose a thesis topic for her degree, Hamill proposed a detailed examination of Alabama’s tax system from a theological perspective. Her advisors approved the topic, and Hamill departed from what she calls the glamour work of business organizational taxes for the drudgery of state and local taxes. It proved a tremendous challenge for her and for the law students and library staff she enlisted in her work. “We had to prove the inequity beyond a shadow of a doubt,” she said. Moreover, Hamill wanted to make the point that the inequity exists in a state whose citizens overwhelmingly identify themselves as Christians. “When one examines the suffering and hardship Alabama’s tax structure in 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,” Hamill wrote in an opinion column at the time of her graduation from Beeson Divinity School in 2002.

Hamill was preparing her exhaustive thesis for publication in the University of Alabama Law Review when Samford President Thomas E. Corts approached her with the idea of Samford publishing the thesis in a condensed and more accessible form. The result was The Least of These: Tax Reform and the Commands of Faith, a three-page, church-bulletin size summary of Hamill’s work. “The pamphlet turned out to be the superior way to get this message out,” Hamill said, although she noted that the highly detailed law review article and associated documents are now available in book form under the title The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians.

Sean Flynt, who organized the pamphlet project for Samford, said he has distributed approximately 40,000 of the pamphlets since the first, tentative print run of 5,000 in January of this year. “The response to this publication has been beyond anybody’s expectations,” he said. Churches, civic groups and Hamill herself top the list of those requesting the publication, but Flynt said requests have come from as far away as Texas and Oregon. “Advocates of reform in Alabama and elsewhere have seized upon this idea as a way to unite people of faith in the cause of economic justice.” He said Hamill’s work, including Samford’s role in it, has attracted attention from National Public Radio, ABC News, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, foreign media and the largest Alabama daily newspapers.

Thanks to the full-time spotlight trained on her, Hamill figures she had approximately 200 speaking engagements and interviews in the last year. Not all the attention has been positive, however. Attacks on Hamill and her work in spring 2003 drew return fire from newspaper editorialists and inspired the Beeson Divinity School faculty to formally and unanimously endorse Hamill’s work. They wrote, in part:

In light of the moral imperative that the Word of God places upon us as Christians, and in light of the injustice toward the poor presently codified in Alabama’s tax laws, the faculty of Beeson Divinity School is supportive of efforts to reform Alabama’s tax code to make it more equitable. We especially commend our alumna Susan Pace Hamill in her efforts at state tax reform and call upon other Christians to join us in supporting these efforts.

“ There is no greater joy or comfort than to be courageously backed up by those who nurtured me,” Hamill said, recalling the Beeson faculty’s vote of confidence. “They claimed me.”

It remains to be seen how many other Alabamians will claim Hamill’s challenging message. On September 9th Alabama voters will decide whether or not to approve an unprecedented package of tax reform that addresses many of the areas of Alabama’s tax structure that Hamill and others find so unjust. If reform advocates prevail on the 9th, said Hamill, “it’s a real first step toward reform.” But, she cautioned, “it’s not the only step.” She said the work of leading Alabama out of last place in so many categories “does not stop on Sept. 9th, win or lose.” And win or lose, she said, Samford’s Christian mission gives the University a unique ability and responsibility to advocate justice for the least of these.

More info about... the Least of These pamphlet

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