Officials from Vedic City, Fairfield and Jefferson County discussed concerns about the use of Vedic City's local option sales tax at the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors' meeting this morning, focusing primarily on First Amendment concerns and whether the tax would adversely impact other communities.
Vedic City officials were questioned about whether using tax money to support 500 Vedic pundits, or young men practicing the Transcendental Meditation program, would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
In response, they said the TM program is not religious in nature and uses "scientifically researched and verified methods" to create peace.
According to the ballot measure passed by Vedic City voters in September, Vedic Citys share of the local option sales tax money collected in Jefferson County will go "to support peace creating experts and facilities for those experts."
Jefferson County resident John Stanley said he was concerned about the possibility of taxpayer money being used for a non-secular, or religious, purpose.
"I'm uncomfortable when non-secular and government revenue start getting a little too mixed together," he said. "The pundit project and all that, to me, clearly seems non-secular in nature and I feel a little uncomfortable having tax revenues go to that purpose."
Maureen Wynne, city attorney for Vedic City, said research has been done linking TM, which practitioners say creates coherence and heightened consciousness, to various benefits for communities.
"Having a coherence-creating group is an effective way to reduce crime, reduce sickness and create positive economic trends," she said. "As the city where some of the top researchers who have done some of this research live, it would be funny if we didn't try it out ourselves."
Wynne said she does not see TM as religious in nature.
"On campus and in the meditating community, you can probably find almost every religion there is in the world," she said. "We certainly, in our own experience, don't feel that practicing TM is a religion."
Wynne added the project to bring the pundits to Jefferson County from India is being undertaken by Maharishi University of Management.
"Cities ... are allowed to help both private and public universities," she said.
Fairfield city attorney John Morrissey asked what the difference would be between Vedic City helping M.U.M. with the pundit project and the city of Dubuque using tax money to bring 500 more Catholic monks to the New Melleray monastery there.
"I've heard various characterizations of the pundits, from them being students to them being instructors to them being holy people," Morrissey said. "If they show up and they're 500 Hindu monks, will they not be doing what the New Melleray monks are doing?"
"The Catholic monk thing is where somebody is committed to a religious life," she said. "[TM] is not part of our religion."
Wynne said the pundits "are basically professional peace-creators. This is what they do."
Assistant county attorney Pat McAvan said his opinion, and that of the Des Moines law firm supervisors hired to investigate the issue, is that the taxs use -- "to support peace creating experts and facilities for those experts for the purpose of creating peace, prevention of crime, and freedom from problems and in favor of the life of the people of the City and of all the people on earth" -- is stated in a secular manner.
"All the parties who have reviewed it feel that the language is such that the money will go for a secular purpose," he said.
In a letter to the board of supervisors dated Oct. 9, Ivan Webber of the law firm Ahlers & Cooney wrote, "the question is stated in a secular fashion and in my view establishes a (minimal) public purpose."
However, Webber also wrote, "if indeed public money is subsequently used from the sales tax to support institutions of religion, a constitutional claim would then be ripe." He added a claim of violating the First Amendment could be brought by anyone who pays the tax -- in this case, any taxpayer in Jefferson County.
In 1979, the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled TM was religious in nature. The appeals court's ruling upheld a lower court's 1977 injunction against teaching TM in public schools on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.