WASHINGTON -- Believers whose religion tells them that their faith should come first, even ahead of their creditors, learned yesterday that federal law may see the priorities differently.
With not a single justice objecting, the Supreme Court said it would not hear a plea that debtors who go bankrupt ought to be allowed to withhold enough money from creditors to cover tithing to a church.
The case involved a Portland, Ore., couple, Stephen and Charlene Ivy, who followed the practice of tithing 10 percent.
When they went bankrupt and offered a plan to pay off some of their creditors on the installment plan, they worked out a 36-month schedule built around a household budget that included $365 a month for tithes.
A bankruptcy judge, however, vetoed the plan, unless the Ivys were willing to stretch out the payment schedule for another 18 months at the same monthly rates. That way, the judge said, creditors could get paid as much as they would have otherwise, and the Ivys could still tithe to their church.
Refusing to take that option and telling a federal appeals court that this interfered unconstitutionally with their freedom to practice their religion, the Ivys lost the second round.
Taking the case on to the Supreme Court, they noted that bankruptcy law allows debtors to keep out some money for recreation. Religion, they argued, was, like recreation, a form of "refreshment of strength and spirits," and should be treated the same.
The Ivys lost the third round, too, as the justices declined without explanation to consider their plea in the case of Ivy vs. Myers (No. 90-1445).