20 May 2016

A Friday Afternoon Distraction: What's A Bible?

Like all states, Illinois permits an individual debtor to keep certain property free from the claims of unpaid creditors. (See my five-part series of posts here, here, here, here, and here for some theological observations about biblical exemptions and my article The Missing Piece of the Puzzle: Perspectives on the Wage Priority in Bankruptcy (download here) about the impact of biblical exemptions on federal bankruptcy law since 1841.) And like most states, among the list of exempt property in Illinois is a "bible."

Some Bibles are, of course, more valuable than others and the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in February about what to do with a particularly valuable one. Or at least a book that the parties conceded was a Bible.

The text in question was a first edition of the Book of Mormon. Anna Robinson, who owned multiple other copies of the Book of Mormon, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy but claimed as exempt only her first edition, appraised at $10,000. The bankruptcy court denied her exemption of this copy reasoning that the purpose of the exemption was merely to "protect a bible of ordinary value so as not to deprive a debtor of a worship aid." The Seventh Circuit in an opinion reported as In re Robinson, 811 F.3d 267 (2016) disagreed. The appellate court reasoned that the Illinois legislature hadn't placed a limit on the value of an exemptable bible so neither should the court--a conclusion with which I agree.

But the case got me to wondering: Is the Book of Mormon a "bible"? In Ms. Robinson's case the bankruptcy trustee stipulated that "bible" means simply "a religious text." Of course, orthodox Christians would differ believing that the canon of Scripture (and thus the Bible) closes with the book of Revelation. But disagreements exist among various Christian traditions with respect to what constitutes the text of "the bible," e.g., the intertestamental works known variously as the apocrypha or deutero-canonical.

And what of the Koran? Or the Vedas and other texts associated with what is known as Hinduism? Or Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet? Are they "bibles" too? The answer on the bankruptcy trustee's definition would be yes but is that what the text of the Illinois statute means? Or meant at the time of its enactment? And even if the answer to those two questions is no, would such a limitation be constitutional? And what should we make of the lack of capitalization of "bible" in the Illinois statue?

Oh well. Enough time wasted. I had better get back to something really important like the fate of home owners associations in bankruptcy.

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