Tax Resistance in “The Mennonite”, 1988

This is the thirty-fourth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of The Mennonite. Today we enter the late 1980s.

The Mennonite

The edition again announced the “Taxes for Peace” fund that had been established by the MCC Peace Section (U.S.) to coordinate war tax redirection.

In the fund would be redirecting taxes to “the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund… [which] seeks to enact the U.S. Peace Tax Fund Bill… to give those conscientiously opposed to war a way to pay 100 percent of their taxes, with the military percentage going to a separate fund for peace-enhancing programs.”

In about $4,000 was contributed to the U.S. Peace Section Taxes for Peace fund. Those monies helped support the Lancaster County Peacework Alternatives project. In other years peace-related projects in places such as Laos and Guatemala have received funds.

MCC U.S. Peace Section is also offering an information packet on military tax opposition that contains varying theological positions on the war tax issue, and materials about tax laws and legal concerns for the tax resister.

The issue brought this news:

The General Board of Friends United Meeting has adopted a policy of not withholding the federal withholding tax of employees who are conscientious objectors to paying taxes used for military purposes. The General Conference Mennonite Church adopted a similar policy in . On the current staff, said general secretary Steven Main, are three conscientious objectors to paying war taxes. The policy requires employees who want to participate in the witness of military tax refusal to first go through a “clearness process” with their Meeting or church community.

That issue also reprinted excerpts from the letter Ethel S. and Henry A. Fast sent to the IRS:

I was a conscientious objector to war in World War Ⅰ. So I reported this to the military camp office, informing them I could not participate in regular military training. I asked them to assign me to service in a base hospital designed for overseas patients. They respected my claim of conscience and gave me an opportunity to serve face and stomach victims of war. Later… they handed me an “honorable discharge” card. I still have this card.

Can you now extend to me, as a person of 92 years, and to my spouse, the same sensitive respect for our claims of conscience? We love our country and we respect our government. And we do not hesitate to pay taxes for orderly affairs and services of government.

But we have become deeply troubled over the vastly disproportionate part of our federal income tax being allocated to the building up of a military force and arsenal. This is entirely out of proportion to the huge debt and the staggering needs among the poor, the sick, the aged and the unemployed.

Our conscience can no longer endure this. So we have decided to withhold 37 percent of federal income tax liability (namely, the 37 percent used in the present military build-up program). We want to send this as a donation to the Commission on Home Ministries… [which reaches out] to the poor, the unemployed, the underprivileged and the many people hurt and adrift by wars…

In World War Ⅰ the government recognized my concern of conscience. Can you grant us this kind of courtesy for our older years?

Ethel Fast and Henry Fast

Ethel S. and Henry A. Fast

The edition noted:

Six Mennonite pastors who have refused to pay some or all of their military taxes were interviewed in the issue of ACTS (Another Church Tries Something), published by the Commission on Home Ministries. Donald Kaufman of Bethel College Church, North Newton, Kan., John Gaeddert of First Church, Halstead, Kan., S. Roy Kaufman of Science Ridge Church, Sterling, Ill., Ronald Krehbiel of Salem Church, Freeman, S.D., Mark Weidner of First Church, Bluffton, Ohio, and Dorothy Nickel Friesen of Manhattan (Kan.) Fellowship told of how they decided to resist war taxes, how they involved church members in the decision and how their action has affected others.

The New Call to Peacemaking initiative and the Friends Committee on War Tax Concerns sponsored a gathering of leaders from the traditional peace churches in to discuss what to do about the dilemma of such churches withholding taxes for the government from the salaries of their employees who wanted to resist paying war taxes. Paul Schrag wrote up an article on the meeting that was reprinted in the edition of The Mennonite. Excerpts:

The question of how church organizations can help their employees follow their consciences — and how to deal with the risks involved for both employees and employers — were the issues that the 36 Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers struggled with.

The church leaders, organizational representatives and lawyers affirmed their support for individual military tax resisters and for efforts to seek a legislative solution by working toward passage of the U.S. Peace Tax Fund bill in Congress.

They agreed to organize a peace church leadership group to go to Washington sometime in the future to support the peace tax bill and to express concerns about tax withholding. They also agreed to help each other by filing friend-of-the-court briefs if tax resisters are prosecuted and by sharing the cost of tax resistance penalties.

“You may think the world will little note nor long remember what has happened here,” said Marian Franz, director of the U.S. Peace Tax Fund. “But I regard it as a historic meeting.

“The decision to end the human race does not belong to Caesar. Therefore, tax dollars that wrestle that decision out of the hands of God do not either.”

Participants in the meeting included both military tax resisters and people who would not engage in tax resistance themselves but support those who do.

People from churches that have policies of breaking the law by not withholding the federal taxes of employees who oppose paying military taxes shared their experiences with people from churches considering adopting such a policy. The General Conference Mennonite Church and two Quaker groups are in the first category. The Mennonite Church is in the second.

MC leaders, including moderator James Lapp and moderator-elect George Brunk Ⅲ, came to the meeting to explore church policy options on military tax withholding. MC general assembly delegates asked the church to develop a policy recommendation on the issue for consideration at Normal .

“This roots us in a larger movement,” Lapp said of the meeting. “It gives us ideas and handles about how other people have addressed it. We don’t have to start from ground zero.”

The MC General Board plans to formulate questions about tax withholding for congregations to discuss. It will prepare a recommendation next year based on congregations’ responses.

Robert Hull, GC secretary for peace and justice, said it was frustrating that many members of historic peace churches are not willing to witness against financial participation in preparing for war, although they are opposed to physical participation in war.

Some said it was disappointing that so many people are unwilling to follow their consciences until the government, through the Peace Tax Fund, might allow them to do so legally.

One quoted Gandhi: “We have stooped so low that we fancy it our duty to do whatever the law requires.”

“Do we want our righteousness without a price?” asked Ray Gingerich, a professor at Eastern Mennonite College, Harrisonburg, Va.

When a church or organization decides to honor employees’ requests not to withhold their federal income tax, it assumes serious risks. Any “responsible person” who willfully fails to withhold an employee’s taxes theoretically could be punished with a prison sentence and a $250,000 fine. An organization could be fined $500,000.

But such penalties have never been imposed on legitimate religious organizations, nor are they likely to be, said two lawyers at the meeting. The usual Internal Revenue Service response to war tax resistance is to take the amount of tax owed, plus a 5 percent penalty and interest, from the employee’s bank account.

The IRS has not taken even this action against the four GC employees who are not having their taxes withheld. All GC personnel who could be subject to penalties have agreed to accept the risk.

The Friends World Committee for Consultation, which has had a non-withholding policy , has had tax money seized, plus interest and penalties, from its resisters’ bank accounts. The Friends United Meeting adopted a non-withholding policy . The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends will decide in whether it should have such a policy.

Charles Boyer of the Church of the Brethren said he would use the input from the meeting to work toward helping develop a denominational policy on tax resistance.

An even more basic issue than war tax resistance arose concerning tax-withholding laws. Some compared the church’s tax-collecting role to that of the biblical publicans.

“I have a growing dis-ease that the church is a tax collector for the government, regardless of what the money is used for,” said Vern Preheim, GC general secretary.

Participants made suggestions for improvements on a draft of “A Manual on Military Tax Withholding for Religious Employers,” written by Hull, Linda Coffin of the Friends Committee on War Tax Concerns and lawyers Peter Goldberger and J.E. McNeil, who both gave legal advice at the meeting. The manual is expected to be available later this year.

That book’s availability would be announced in the edition.

Another concern I have with promotion of the Peace Tax Fund law is that in order to tempt legislators to support it, there is a tendency to defang war tax objection and make it less threatening to the government. Take for example this description of Marian Franz’s testimony before a House committee reviewing the tax code: “Franz said that the U.S. Peace Tax Fund Bill would alleviate a persistent burden on the IRS and permit these citizens [conscientious objectors] to pay their full share of tax without violation of religious conscience.” All we want to do is pay our taxes and not cause any trouble for the IRS — is that really the best way to speak truth to power and challenge militarism?

The edition brought this news:

The Internal Revenue Service filed two suits against a Quaker group in Pennsylvania because the organization refused to attach the wages of two employees who have withheld part of their income taxes as a conscientious protest against military spending, Religious News Service reported. The lawsuits against the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends seek $16,836 in connection with federal taxes not paid by William V. Grassie and David A. Falls. The Quakers sent a letter to the IRS saying neither Grassie nor Falls is “a tax evader but a conscientious taxpayer who is conscientiously refusing payment of the military portion of his taxes.”