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Some Bibles Are More Exemptable Than Others

posted by Jason Kilborn

Holy BibleI wonder how many Bankruptcy professors have posed a hypothetical about the exemption of a rare Bible worth lots of money? Well, a federal District Court in Illinois had to answer the question for real.

The Illinois personal property exemption statute includes the debtor's Bible. A debtor in Southern Illinois asserted this exemption in a rare, first-edition Mormon Bible that she had acquired (for free) from her local library. Apparently, the library director had not been paying attention, as the 1830 Bible was appraised at at least $10,000.

Amusingly, the debtor's lawyer described this item of property on Schedule B as "old Mormon bible," further observing that "debtor has been told that there is a 100% exemption for bibles but valuable bibles may or may not be covered under such exemption" (!). The trustee accepted this open invitation and objected that the statute was never intended to apply to a Bible of such value, and the bankruptcy court agreed. The District Court reversed.  Responding to the standard law professor questions, the court noted that the word "necessary" in the statute modified only the first word, "wearing apparel," not the other words ("one does not need a bible, school books, or family pictures to survive"), and unlike other property in the statute, bibles are not subject to an explicit value restriction. QED.

Sometimes life does imitate fiction.

Holy Bible image courtesy of Shutterstock

Comments

curious as to when that statue was written, and if the dollar limitations are applicable for today...

ie, "The following personal property, owned by the debtor, is exempt:
(c) The debtor's interest, not to exceed $2,400 in value, in any one motor vehicle;

i mean $2400 wont get you very much car...

This is like the Delaware exemption for the "family bible"--which is quite handy if your name is Gutenberg.

ris: this is a longstanding problem with most state exemptions statutes, which aren't indexed for inflation and haven't been updated in years. The Illinois homestead exemption, for example, is $15,000 ...

Adam: the addition of "family" makes sense to me--the FAMILY Bible often has birth, marriage, death, and other life landmarks recorded in it for the family. This is more like "family photos," and the exemption has always struck me like exempting a hunting dog--going after low-value personal items like this is just spiteful on creditors' part, so the law clarifies that they're exempt. I was sort of surprised that Illinois has no "family" limitation, including an article ("the" family Bible, singular). If I were a Bible collector, my entire collection would be exempt in Illinois?! Sounds like a good asset-protection investment strategy.

No Book of Mormon stock photo?

Now there's an interesting question, David. Have the "Bible" exemption statutes been interpreted to include a Book of Mormon, or a Qu'ran?

FJP, your comment and a Wall Street Journal blog entry by Katherine Stech made me look more closely. The book at issue seems to have been NOT a Bible published by the Mormons in 1830, but a Book of Mormon (which was published for the first time in 1830). The trustee and court seem to have ignored the difference entirely. The Mormons believe in and revere "the Bible" as much as other Christians, but they add to the canon the Book of Mormon, "Another Testament of Jesus Christ," as well as other books (e.g., the Pearl of Great Price). Why this issue was overlooked is a mystery, but I doubt most judges would protect a collectable Qur'an, or Torah scroll, based on a statute that refers to the "bible."

I tend to think that a Q'uran, Torah or Rig Veda would be allowed out of a more modern concern for free exercise of religion. I would hope that , following Elizabeth I, bankruptcy judges would "have no desire to make windows into mens souls" to evaluate whether there was a true faith, either in the book or held by the debtor, but the problem would be in line drawing as to whether someone could practice bardolatry and exempt an original Shakespeare Folio.

Hmmmmmm. It appears the trustee recognized the issue of whether the Book of Mormon is a "bible," but perhaps consistent with Ed Boltz's free exercise concern, she conceded that the Book of Mormon was "a bible for purpose of the Illinois exemption statute." 498 B.R. 207, 209 (Bankr. S.D. Ill. 2013). The Bankruptcy Court concluded that the purpose of the exemption was "to protect the debtor's daily devotional aid," 498 B.R. at 213, so maybe ONE Qur'an or Torah scroll would be exempted, but the Bankruptcy Court here made a big deal of the fact that the debtor had lots of other copies of the Book of Mormon she could (and actually did) use. I doubt this issue comes up with any frequency, but I really now wonder how other courts would come out on this.

Re: getting the book for free from the library...At one point I debated whether I should tell local public library that their copy of Bertrand Brinley's "The Big Kerplop" was worth several hundred dollars on ebay, but I decided not to.

In my home state of Wisconsin, some 150-year-old exemption statutes survived into the 1990's, including specific antique farm implements and "one horse". There was much discussion back then about the exemptability of a Kentucky Derby winner, but I don't think it was ever fully tested. When last I researched this for a book 20 years ago, many states had specific exemptions that invited this kind of issue.

Yes, but even a "valuable" bible, recently acquired, could become a "family" bible in some sense (who is to judge the word "family" then?). The thing is: if the debtor now were to put the bible up for sale and esp. if she sold it - would the money at least THEN go into the funds that creditors could lay their hands on? Another quirk: if the woman were e.g. a Buddhist - would she still be able to fight for "her" bible on these grounds? Yet maybe NOT for Buddhist texts, even if she coveted the one yet not the other?

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