American Friends Service Committee Sues Feds Over War Taxes

From the edition of Tempo, a magazine of the National Council of Churches, comes this article by Margaret H. Bacon (who was information director of the AFSC at the time):

Must Pacifists Pay for War?

As the war in Indochina drags wearily on, more and more Americans are seeking ways to protest their unwilling complicity in a struggle which they regard as immoral. There are more conscientious objectors in relation to draft age Americans than ever before in our history, more draft resisters, more protesters within the army. And a small but growing band of war weary citizens are turning to another method of protest: refusal to pay that portion of Federal income taxes which supports the war.

“Why should I send my dollars to war when I myself refuse to fight?” the war resister asks. “How can I prove the sincerity of my protest if I am too old for the draft, or the wrong sex, unless I am willing to take this simple positive step?”

Tax resistance is not new in this country. First the Quakers and then the Mennonites brought the notion with them when they came as settlers. In Pennsylvania, Quakers in the government agonized for years over raising war taxes at the request of the British crown, while private citizens often refused to pay either militia fees or war taxes. Many Friends Meetings kept records of Sufferings which were largely accounts of property seized by the militia from members for non-payment of such taxes.

In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau was the most famous advocate of civil disobedience. In , he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes for the war in Mexico. “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be as bloody and violent a measure as it would be to pay them,” he wrote, “and thus enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”

Other New Englanders seized upon the idea of civil disobedience. William Lloyd Garrison made non-resistance a part of his abolitionist campaign. Women suffragettes took up the theme. In one famous case, Abbey Kelley Foster and her husband, Stephen S. Foster, refused to pay taxes on their farm because Abbey did not have the right to vote.

Modern Tax Resisters

Tax refusal, however, remained the act of a mere handful until after World War Ⅱ, when a few hundred pacifists decided to band together to reinforce each other’s determination not to pay taxes, to urge others to join with them, and to work for conscientious objector status for their tax dollars. In , the Internal Revenue Service announced that 848 individuals had refused to pay a portion of their taxes on their income. The figures will undoubtedly be much higher, since a spirited campaign was launched to increase tax resistance as part of the anti-war demonstrations of .

One roadblock in the way of the individual who wants to refuse to pay a portion of this income tax has been the withholding tax. Many men and women find when April 15 rolls around that they do not owe the Government any money; their tax has already been collected by their employer. In fact, the Government may owe them a refund. A few individuals have tried to surmount this problem recently by claiming a large number of mythical dependents — in one case, all the wounded children in Vietnam — and informing IRS of this. Others have pressed the organization for which they work to stop playing the role of tax collector.

Since Federal law compels organizations to withhold taxes from their employees, most employers have felt unable to comply with this request. Even churches and service organizations dedicated to peace — even the strictly pacifist groups — have regretfully continued to serve as tax collectors. Because of the obvious dilemma faced by a pacifist employer in demanding that his pacifist employee pay war taxes, such organizations have been seeking with increasing vigor for a way out of the double bind.

A possible source of relief to this situation appeared on the national scene when the American Friends Service Committee, a well-known Quaker organization, filed a complaint against the U.S. government for the return of AFSC funds which were paid to the government in lieu of Federal income taxes collected from employees conscientiously opposed to war. The suit, which was entered in the United States District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania, may reach the Supreme Court because of the constitutional issue raised.

The Service Committee had long been under pressure to take this step from employees who were opposed to paying war taxes. In its complaint to the government it stated that individual employees had threatened to resign and contributors had questioned the propriety of their donations while the AFSC continued to play the tax collector role. The AFSC was in fact eager to find a way out, but it took several years of committee meetings and conferences with lawyers to formulate the case now before the courts.

The AFSC Claim

During , the AFSC began to honor the requests of several employees that it cease to collect from their salaries that percentage of their Federal income tax which goes for war purposes. (51.6 percent according to the Friends Committee on National Legislation as of .) When it came time to make quarterly payments to the IRS for withheld taxes, the AFSC took from its own general funds the sum of $574.09 to make up the deficit. It is for the recovery of these funds that the claim is made.

Two AFSC employees are also serving as plaintiffs in the case. They are Lorraine Cleveland, 60, Director of the Family Planning Program of the AFSC, and Leonard Cadwallader, 27, Director of Youth Affairs. Mrs. Cleveland, who has been with the Quaker organization , has been a tax resister . Every year she and her husband refused to pay and the Government took the money from their bank account. Cadwallader, who is married and has a young baby is making his first income tax protest , though he and his wife had previously refused to pay the Federal war tax on their use of the telephone.

In Boston, two additional employees are planning to enter a similar suit, enjoining the AFSC to cease serving as the Government’s tax collector. It is hoped that between these two suits the constitutional question involved will be brought to public attention. At issue, the AFSC feels, is the right of the Government to compel an organization founded on conscience to violate the conscience of its employees.

“The Federal withholding tax which compels the AFSC to collect military taxes as hereinbefore defined from those of its employees who are by reason of religious training and belief conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form, is in direct violation of the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the Quaker claim states.

If the AFSC wins its suit, the implications for all religious organizations are immense. Even if it loses, the issue of conscientious objector status for tax dollars will have been brought more widely into public debate.

In , the colony of Rhode Island in consideration of its Quaker citizens wrote the first exemption for those of “tender conscience” to participation in warfare:

Be it therefore enacted, and hereby it is enacted by his Majesty’s authority, that no person (within this Collony) that is or hereafter shall be persuaded in his conscience that he cannot or ought not to trayne, to learn to fight, nor to war, nor to kill any person or persons, shall at any time be compelled against his judgment and conscience to trayne, arm, or fight, to kill any person or persons by reason of or at the command of any officer of this Collony, civil or military, nor by reason of any by-law here past or formerly enacted, nor shall suffer any punishment, fine, distraint, penalty, nor imprisonment, who cannot in conscience trayne, fight or kill any person, or persons for the aforesaid reasons.

Perhaps in tender conscience in regard to warring tax dollars will win equal recognition.

You can find out more about the AFSC lawsuit, which briefly succeeded but ultimately fizzled, in an earlier Picket Line entry.