EXEMPTING THE FAMILY BIBLE: WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (VALUES AND RELIGIOUS TEXTS)?
By: Kaylyn Stanek, Volume 106 Staff Member
A primary justification for the U.S. consumer bankruptcy system is giving debtors a fresh start. Although one might assume an individual must exchange all of their assets in exchange for moving forward, this is not true. The Bankruptcy Code and Minnesota law provide “exemptions” that curb a creditor’s ability to access certain assets. An exemption is a “privilege given to a judgment debtor by law, allowing the debtor to retain certain property without liability.” Most exemptions protect debtors and their dependents by affording people rights to assets including—usually within a specific dollar amount—a home, clothing, a wedding ring, and life insurance. In Minnesota, the “family Bible” is listed among the state’s exempted assets.
So, what happens if you want to file for bankruptcy, but you also want to hold onto your family’s heirloom bible? Can you protect a bible from creditors, even if it is worth thousands of dollars? What if you want to keep a different religious text, like a Qur’an? Minnesota’s bankruptcy statute allows a person to keep their “family Bible” irrespective of its monetary value. This “family Bible” provision is likely unconstitutional, however, considering that (1) the statute violates Minnesota’s Constitution because the provision lacks a value restriction; and (2) the statute violates the U.S. Constitution because exclusively shielding a bible in bankruptcy shows preference for Christianity, which implicates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.
I. THE FAMILY BIBLE EXEMPTION VIOLATES MINNESOTA’S CONSTITUTION BECAUSE IT LACKS A VALUE RESTRICTION
Under the Minnesota Constitution, the state legislature may enact laws pertaining to bankruptcy exemptions. The state Constitution provides that the legislature may exempt a reasonable amount of property from the trustee’s and creditors’ access. A reasonable amount does not ostensibly equate to a dollar limit. For example, Minnesota’s homestead exemption contains a size limitation of 160 acres. Nonetheless, courts have interpreted the constitution’s delegation to the legislature to craft exemptions for a “reasonable amount of property” to mean the statutes must impose a value restriction. One of the earliest cases to dictate that a “reasonable amount of property” meant a value restriction was How v. How in 1894. More recently, drawing on the How court’s rationale, the Minnesota Supreme Court in In re Tveten invalidated the exemption for beneficiary associations (like benefits from a fire department) for its failure to impose a monetary criterion on the exemption.
With respect to the “family Bible” exemption, part of the subdivision in which the bible exemption appears has already been found unconstitutional. In full, the subdivision makes exempt “[t]he family Bible, library, and musical instruments.” In In re Hilary, the debtor used the instruments provision to list a violin worth an estimated $2,787 as exempt. In light of the In re Tveten court requiring a value restriction on the benefits exemption, the debtor argued in a similar vein about objectivity in an attempt to uphold the exemption as constitutional. The debtor pointed to the word “family” as imposing an objective and valid restriction on the exemption. The court rejected this argument in favor of requiring a concrete monetary limitation. The court did not give weight to the fact that the debtor possessed the violin for nearly six decades despite obvious financial turmoil. This implies the court intended to deter debtors from shielding wealth under valuable instruments. Overall, the court held the statutory language failed to distinguish lower-value musical instruments as exempt based on their monetary value. Therefore, the court ruled the musical instrument exemption unconstitutional and would likely find the “family Bible” exemption similarly unconstitutional.
Although the state Supreme Court struck down the musical instrument provision in Minnesota’s “family Bible” exemption for lack of a dollar limit, a more recent Illinois case sustained a similar asset exemption for a valuable Book of Mormon. In In re Robinson, the Seventh Circuit declined to read a dollar limit on Illinois’s exemption for a “bible,” allowing a woman to exempt a first edition Book of Mormon valued at $10,000. The court’s decision rested on the plain meaning of the statute, which did not include language restricting the exemption within a certain value. The court acknowledged an absence of case law interpreting “bible” to include any religious text. They did not, however, consider whether the “bible” provision was unconstitutional for interfering with a person’s free exercise of their religion because the issue was not raised. Perhaps one could draw from In re Robinson to argue that Minnesota’s “family Bible” provision is meant to protect the special historical value of the text to the family, regardless of the book’s resale value. Clearly, the Seventh Circuit’s refusal to impose a value restriction on an asset exemption contrasts with Minnesota law.
In summation, though Minnesota’s Constitution does not on its face require dollar limitations on exemptions, the “family Bible” exemption would nonetheless be invalidated in court for failing to impose a value restriction. Minnesota courts have a long history of interpreting a “reasonable amount of property” to mean that an exemption requires a monetary constraint to be legally enforceable. Moreover, courts would likely find the statute falls outside the ambit of the state constitution for lack of a dollar limit tied to the “family Bible” provision. Even if courts change their interpretation of what a “reasonable amount of property” entails, the exemption still likely violates the U.S. Constitution and is therefore voidable.
II. BY FAVORING RELIGION, THE FAMILY BIBLE EXEMPTION VIOLATES THE ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE IN THE U.S. CONSTITUTION
One purpose for exemptions includes ensuring the debtor can preserve their identity after bankruptcy; however, Minnesota’s exemption for a “family Bible” only allows some people to preserve texts by exclusively exempting a bible. The statute’s endorsement of a particular religion likely contravenes the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. To determine if a government action violates the First Amendment, the seminal Lemon v. Kurtzman case directs courts to consider if the statute (1) has a “secular purpose,” (2) has a primary effect that “neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and (3) creates “excessive church-state entanglement.”
A provision that particularly allows a debtor to shield a “family Bible” compellingly meets the three-part Lemon test as a governmental endorsement of religion. First, the “family Bible” provision likely offends the “secular purpose” prong of the Lemon test that asks whether the legislature intended to endorse or condemn religion in general by enacting the statute. It is unlikely the “family Bible” provision was meant to encompass both religious or nonreligious texts because the legislature used the term “Bible” next to the word “library,” and courts have a duty to give effect to each word of a statute. The broader context of the text also supports the idea that the bible exemption was enacted with the intent to promote religion, considering the provision precedes an exemption for a “pew in . . . [a] place of public worship.”
Second, Minnesota’s bible exemption also likely violates the “primary effect” part of the Lemon test because the exemption provides more than an incidental benefit; instead, it explicitly shields a bible in a bankruptcy proceeding. Third, by carving out a benefit specifically for owners of a religious text who file for bankruptcy, the bible exemption likely demonstrates a “substantial degree” of entanglement between religious activity and the state. Furthermore, Minnesota is fairly unique in providing a bible exemption and thus there is little case law pertaining to First Amendment claims. However, a dearth of previous establishment of religion litigation on this issue does not imply that courts deem this practice constitutional; rather, that so few states have such an exemption implies that states recognize the First Amendment violation caused by specifically exempting a bible. For these reasons, Minnesota’s “family Bible” exemption is unlikely to withstand a First Amendment establishment of religion claim.
 See, e.g., Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 U.S. 234, 244 (1934); In re Thompson, 750 F.2d 628, 631 (8th Cir. 1984). The problems addressed in this blog are matters of state and federal constitutional law—though the issues may be more likely to be raised in a bankruptcy case—which is why the exemption laws are analyzed under a bankruptcy framework.
 11 U.S.C. § 522. Minnesota is an “opt in” state, meaning debtors domiciled in that state may use either federal exemptions or state law. See 11 U.S.C. § 522(d); Minn. Stat. § 522(b)(3)(A).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37 (2008).
 Exemption, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).
 Minn. Stat. § 510.01 (1993).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 4(a) (2008).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 4(c) (2008).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 10 (2013).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 2 (2008).
 Minn. Const. art. I, § 12 (“A reasonable amount of property shall be exempt from seizure or sale for the payment of any debt or liability.”). Historically, Minnesota’s legislature was encouraged to provide exemptions based on local debtors’ “individual circumstances and necessities . . . .” Poznanovic v. Maki, 296 N.W. 415, 417 (Minn. 1941) (quoting Grimes v. Bryne, 2 Minn. 89, 104 (Minn. 1858)).
 Minn. Const. art. I, § 12.
 Minn. Stat. § 510.02.
 The court in In re Netz held that a debtor could not shield approximately $10,000 in a pension from seizure because the employee benefits exemption failed to limit the scope of the exemption within a “reasonable amount.” 91 B.R. 503, 505 (Bankr. D. Minn. 1988).
 59 Minn. 415 N.W. 456, 457 (1894).
 In re Tveten, 402 N.W.2d 551, 558 (Minn. 1987).
 In re Hilary, 76 B.R. 683 (Bankr. D. Minn. 1987).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 2 (2008).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 2. In re Hilary, 76 B.R. at 684.
 In re Hilary, 76 B.R. at 686.
 In re Robinson, 811 F.3d 267 (7th Cir. 2016).
 Id. at 268.
 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/12-1001(a) (1982).
 Id. at 269.
 See Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 2 (2008).
 See Minn. Const. art. I, § 12.
 See In re Johnson, 124 B.R. 290, 296 (Minn. B. 1991) (“[T]he general legislative purpose of exemption laws—to prevent private destitution and hardship, to support and stabilize the home and family unit, and to prevent impecunious debtors from burdening the public purse . . . .”); Lowell P. Bottrell, Comfortable Beds, a Church Pew, a Cemetery Lot, One Hog, One Pig, Six Sheep, One Cow, a Yoke of Oxen or a Horse, and Your Notary Seal: Some Thoughts About Exemptions, 72 N.D. L. Rev. 83, 97 (1996).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 2 (2008).
 U.S. Const. amend. I.
 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971).
 See Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 586 (1987).
 See Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 174 (2001).
 Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 3. The statute also provides exemptions for “wedding rings or other religious or culturally recognized symbols of marriage . . . .” Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 4(c) (2008).
 Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 273 (1981).
 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 615–17 (1971).
 Out of the twelve states that specifically exempt a bible, only six states do not mention any other type of religious text. Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 33-1125(7), (10) (2018) (exempting a “family Bible”); Del. Code. Ann. tit. 10 § 4902(a) (1995) (exempting a “family Bible . . . and family library”); 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/12-1001(a) (1982) (exempting a “bible”); Iowa Code Ann. § 627.6(3) (1974) (exempting “[p]rivate libraries [and] family Bibles”); Minn. Stat. § 550.37, subdiv. 2 (2008); N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 511:2 (2019) (exempting “bibles…and library of any debtor”); N.D. Cent. Code Ann. § 28-22-02(4) (2015) (exempting “[o]ne family Bible or other family primary religious text”); 42 Pa. Stat. & Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8124(a)(2) (2000) (exempting “Bibles”); 9 R.I. Gen. Laws Ann. § 9-26-4(4) (1999) (exempting “bibles . . . and other books in use in the family”); S.D. Codified Laws § 43-45-2(4) (2014) (exempting a “family Bible . . . and all other books used as a part of the family library”); Tenn. Code Ann. § 26-2-104(3) (2010) (exempting a “family Bible”); Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 42.001 (1997) (exempting a “bible or other book containing sacred writings of a religion”); Va. Code Ann. § 34-26 (2006) (exempting “[t]he family Bible”). New York is the only state that exempts “religious texts” without also explicitly mentioning a bible. N.Y. C.P.L.R. 5205(a)(2) (2011).