This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we continue to work through the early 1980s.
General Conference Mennonite Church vs. the IRS
From the edition:
Representatives of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Internal Revenue Service failed to reach an 11th-hour compromise at a meeting in Washington on which would have averted a suit by the 63,000-member denomination against the government agency.
IRS officials at the meeting denied that there was any administrative solution to the conference’s complaint that it must withhold the income taxes of its employees, thereby acting as a tax collector for the state. The denomination has argued, and will argue in a forthcoming judicial action, that the IRS requirement violates the concept of separation of church and state as embodied in the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
“The 45-minute meeting was cordial, but unproductive,” said Vern Preheim, general secretary for the conference. “We outlined our concerns about the withholding issue as a historic peace church and described the problem which the IRS requirement poses for us.”
William Ball, the conference’s attorney in the matter, then formally asked members of the IRS’s special working group on withholding issues whether there was any way to exempt the General Conference from the problematic requirement.
Nancy Schuhmann, who chairs the special group, stated that the IRS must abide by its codes of operation and would not be able to offer an exemption on tax withholding to the conference. IRS officials Susan Cunningham and Gail Libin were also present.
In light of the results of the meeting, attorney Ball will complete the preparation of the conference’s complaint and submit the brief to a U.S. district court after one last check to make sure all administrative possibilities have been exhausted is complete.
The General Conference’s General Board was authorized to initiate a judicial action on the tax withholding question at an international gathering of the conference membership at Estes Park, Colo., in .
More than a year earlier, on , delegates to a special midtriennium conference session instructed the GB to “use all legal, legislative and administrative avenues for achieving conscientious objector exemption” to the tax withholding requirement.
An update in the edition noted:
GB also heard a brief report by its general secretary, Vern Preheim, on the progress of the judicial action on the tax withholding issue. Progress seems to be slow, as witnesses and a co-plaintiff have to be found. Employees of the conference who are taking action of their own on the war tax issue were assured of adequate and appropriate conference support.
But by the issue, everything had come to a screeching halt:
In the light of a negative judgment rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court against an Amish employer on , the General Conference’s judicial action committee has recommended to the denomination’s General Board that a planned suit against the IRS on the issue of tax withholding “be put on indefinite hold."
The committee’s decision came at the end of a conference call with William Ball, who has been preparing the case on behalf of the church group over the past year. During the telephone meeting. Ball indicated that, considering the Supreme Court ruling in the case U.S. vs. Lee, the General Conference would almost certainly lose its case.
In the Amish case, employer Edwin Lee argued that his withholding of Social Security taxes was against both his own and his employees’ consciences.
In the unanimous decision of the court on the Amish question, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge tax systems because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief."
Rather than pursue a negatively shrouded course of action at this time, the General Conference committee also urged the General Board to make more money available “for additional efforts to promote the World Peace Tax Fund.”
In his letter to General Board members, general secretary Vern Preheim concluded: “With closure of the ‘administrative avenue’ during my meeting with IRS, and now closure of the ‘judicial avenue’ via U.S. vs. Lee, we are left with the ‘legislative avenue’ as our only conceivable legal avenue prior to our triennial sessions.
“If no significant progress is made in terms of additional congressional sponsorship of the WPTF legislation, we will have to report a totally negative outcome to the efforts resolved at Minneapolis in . This will again bring us to the threshold of divine obedience/civil disobedience.”
In coming to that decision, the group weighed the importance of a number of concerns, including the timing of the GC action, the witness value of the suit if it were pushed forward, the fact that a loss in court might set a negative precedent which would eclipse favorable decisions in related cases, and whether proceeding with the action when defeat seems certain would be good stewardship.
Preheim hopes to gather together preliminary response of the General Board to the committee recommendations in the next few weeks. A full discussion will take place at a fall meeting of the board.
The decision of the board was covered in the edition:
Realizing they had reached a critical juncture in their church’s ongoing struggle against the payment of taxes used for war, members of the General Conference’s General Board decided on to stall its impending suit against the IRS and let delegates to ’s triennial sessions decide on what course of action to take.
A resolution to proceed with the judicial action, which would have tested the constitutionality of laws forcing the church to collect taxes on behalf of the state, was turned down by a vote of six to two, with seven abstentions. The move to put the suit on indefinite hold was based on recommendations from the church’s judicial action committee and the denomination’s attorney in the matter, William B. Ball of Harrisburg, Pa.
In a letter to general secretary Vern Preheim dated , Ball had been pessimistic about the chances of the judicial action’s success in the light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Wisconsin vs. Yoder [sic]. As part of its ruling in that case, the court had stated, “The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.”
“We regard that language as most threatening to [the General Conference’s] position, if not foreclosing it completely,” wrote Ball.
Rather than scuttle the proposed litigation completely, GB members agreed at the recent meetings to consider the suit again, “if and when more favorable conditions prevail and depending upon the response at Bethlehem, Pa.” (the location of ’s triennial sessions).
Delegates to the General Conference’s triennial sessions in Estes Park, Colo., empowered the General Board to initiate a judicial action as a follow-up to a special session on the theme of Christian civil responsibility in Minneapolis . At that meeting, delegates resolved to “use all legal, legislative and administrative avenues for achieving a conscientious objector exemption from the legal requirement that the conference withhold income taxes from the wages of its employees.”
Part of the General Board’s discussions focused on interpretation of that resolution; namely, at what point each of those “avenues” would be considered to have been exhausted. Some members felt that Ball’s advice closed the legal avenue; others said that the judicial route would not be blocked until a court ruled against a suit brought before it by the conference. Many agreed that a legal test would be an important public witness and is, for that reason alone, worth considering further.
The administrative avenue to a solution was eliminated after a meeting between GC officials and representatives of the IRS on , when IRS declined to make any exceptions to rules requiring the conference to withhold taxes from the salaries of its employees. The World Peace Tax Fund legislation, currently in committee in the U.S. Congress, represents the legislative avenue.
Board members will ask the GC delegate body to answer some of these questions at Bethlehem , and to make a decision about whether or not the conference’s business office should simply go ahead and stop withholding taxes from the salaries of those employees who wish it, thereby breaking IRS regulations. In such a case, the general secretary and business manager would be immediately responsible, Preheim reported.
The conference’s judicial action committee will prepare appropriate background materials and resolutions for presentation at Bethlehem and present these to the General Board at its meeting for review.
David E. Ortman described “four levels of tax witness” in the edition:
Level one — tax protest. Why is it that those who feel uncomfortable with tax resistance spend more time protesting civil disobedience than war taxes?
Persons filing and paying taxes each April 15 should attach a protest letter, outlining one’s opposition to how 50 percent of the tax money will be spent. Most importantly, copies of this letter should go to your representative, senators, newspaper editor and should be posted in the church. Openness is critical. The IRS is fearful of those who publicize their tax protest — even if it is merely a letter — because it encourages others.
For those who feel exceptionally penitent, file back letters of protest and ask that they be attached to your previous returns.
Level two — tax resistance. This is a clear call to civil disobedience — organized tax resistance with acceptance of penalties. Having a support group to guide you in this decision is important. Hopefully, congregational affirmation of such a decision would be forthcoming. One should be prepared for the IRS to use its unchecked power to collect any income or other tax owed.
Level three — tax avoidance. Legal tax avoidance — keeping one’s income below taxable levels — is certainly in line with living more with less. Perhaps we ought to have our MCC overseas workers explain to us how half the world can live in poverty on $100 a year, when we with abundance and waste all around us cannot seem to live on less than $10,000.
Legal tax avoidance has the additional blessing of insuring that no income tax is used for war. Minimum U.S. income levels for 1981 are $3,300 for single people and $5,400 for married couples.
Level four — tax counseling. This level incorporates any of the three levels above, but commits one to a study into the IRS, military budget and federal tax policy. Just as draft counselors sprang up during the draft years, we need more tax counselors to aid us in responding to the draft on our money.
According to Sen. Pryor, D-Ark., the Pentagon spends more on military bands — close to $90 million — than we spend on arms control — about $20 million. When will we hear the music? Perhaps there is no single right answer for everyone, but surely silence is not an acceptable response.
The edition reviewed Affirm Life: Pay for Peace, a small handbook put out by the Historic Peace Church Task Force on Taxes, designed in a loose-leaf form so it could be updated, and meant to help classes and discussion groups explore their response to war taxes. (There was another review of the book in the edition.)
James W. Nikl, in an letter to the editor, encouraged readers to consider cutting their income to cut their taxes. “What would happen if we all cut our incomes in half?” he asked. “How would it affect the military budget?” He did the math for a dual-income couple in the 49% tax bracket and found that they would significantly lower their taxes and gain a lot of valuable free time in the bargain. He concluded:
We have a choice. We can race our motors all our lives, and the government will take most of what we produce. Or we can take time to smell the flowers along the way.
In response to a critic who thought Nikl’s tax advice was too materialistic and coldly practical, he responded:
I agree with what [the critic] said about our attitude toward material possessions. We should put a strong emphasis on the gospel of peace which embraces the needs of those in our community who are without. I believe, however, that Mennonites should and would prefer to use their own wealth as they see fit and would be much better stewards of God’s bounty than the U.S. government.
I doubt that willfully giving of our tax money so that a small portion will go for human resources is really attractive to many Mennonites. I would also question whether the good effects of the human resources portion of our tax even comes close to offsetting the bad effects of the military part.
The edition noted that a Task Force on Tax Support of Canadian Military Activities had begun working, under the direction of the Canadian MCC peace and social concerns office.
An article on the first century of Mennonites in America included this note about Mennonite tax resistance:
A testimony of an “outsider” in attests that Mennonites were still people of conscience at the end of their first century in North America: “It is well known that the Quakers and Mennonists were formerly some of the best farmers in Pennsylvania. These people, from having their cattle, horses, farming utensils, etc., so often taken from them for taxes, have sensibly declined as farmers. Many of them have sold their farms and gone to other states, whilst others of them do not raise 20 bushels of grain, where they once raised 100.”
The issue carried this good news:
MCC has spent over $10,000 to purchase and ship about 1,200 shovels to Laos. $4,000 of that amount was allocated from MCC’s “Taxes for Peace” fund [which] was established in to receive contributions from church members who had voluntarily withheld portions of their taxes as a symbolic protest against the government’s excessive spending for military purposes.
News from Other Denominations
The edition carried this news:
The Lutheran Peace Fellowship recently issued “A Call to Tax Resistance for Lutherans” statement committing members to tax resistance as a moral stand against the nuclear arms race. According to Dennis Jacobsen, fellowship coordinator, 23 Lutherans from 11 states endorsed the statement, which said, “We will no longer pay for war while praying for peace.”
…and this news:
The St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis made a public decision to withhold payment of the excise tax on its phone bill. This was done, said the congregation, “in response to the gospel call to be peacemakers and to church teachings that we, as Christians, must devote ourselves to the cause of peace — and, in particular, disarmament.”
In the same edition, James W. Nikl gave some advice on seeking tax shelters and deferrals. Most of this was fairly dry tax advice, but the article ended with a section that began thusly:
Role of our churches. Recently the Boulder, Colo., Friends Meeting proposed a position of peace secretary for the congregation. That person would become an authority on taxes and related items and keep the rest of the congregation informed as to how to legally divert their tax dollars from military uses. We could perhaps create a position on our various church boards and work toward this same goal.
The edition included this note:
Two members of the Methodist Federation for Social Action have found an innocent way to protest U.S. budget priorities. John and Pat Schweibert concluded that about 41 percent of their income tax was going for armaments. So they withheld that amount from what they owed, then handed out a $5 bill to each of 200 unemployed people they found in line at a state employment office. The distribution, timed for , received coverage in the local paper.
The edition held this news:
Seattle Catholics gave significantly more to the annual archdiocesan funds appeal after their spiritual leader, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, took a strong stand against nuclear war, reports the lay-edited National Catholic Reporter. “We thought the archbishop’s stand would have some adverse effect on the appeal,” said Paul LeBlanc, archdiocese assistant director of development. “We didn’t think (the funds) would be this large… The letters to the diocese are running eight to one in favor of the archbishop.” Hunthausen has attracted nationwide notice for withholding the portion of his federal income taxes used for the military.
The edition added this:
A petition with 14,000 names of Old Order Amish in Lawrence County, Pa., was presented to Rep. Eugene V. Atkinson, a Democrat whose district includes Lawrence County. The Amish are seeking a legislative remedy to having to deduct Social Security taxes from employees’ salaries. A bill by Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), and cosponsored by Atkinson, would exempt members of religious faiths opposed to the program from paying Social Security taxes.
That issue also contained this note:
Hanno Klassen sent the Internal Revenue Service two checks this year — each for half the amount he owed. One was made out to IRS; the other (to cover the military share of his taxes) was made out to the American Friends Service Committee. Klassen explained his action in a letter to IRS: “The check made out to AFSC is to show that I want to pay what I owe. But I cannot let my life or my substance be used for killing. You see, I was a member of Hitler’s destructive forces in World War Ⅱ. I was used once; I will not be used again.”