War Tax Resistance and the American Friends Service Committee

War tax resistance and the American Friends Service Committee in the Friends Journal

The American Friends Service Committee, since its founding in , has been one of the most prominent ways modern American Quakers have tried to put their peace testimony into practice. But it could be a voice of relative hesitance and conservatism when many in the Society of Friends were adopting war tax resistance.

I’ve already mentioned the AFSC pamphlet Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, which mentioned war tax resistance only in passing, and only in the context of a single episode . (See ♇ 5 July 2013.)

And I mentioned the AFSC’s weirdly toothless response to the extension of the federal excise tax on phone service to help pay for the Vietnam War effort — to make stickers that people could put on their phone bills reading “The Vietnam War Tax Included in This Bill Is Paid Only Under Protest.” (See ♇ 13 July 2013.)

Finally, I noted that the AFSC had tried to capitalize on the emerging concern among Quakers about war tax payment, war tax resistance, and war tax redirection, with a full page ad that encouraged Quakers to pay a “Peace Tax” — by calculating some percentage of their federal income tax… not in order to resist or redirect it, but in order to determine an appropriately-sized donation to give to the AFSC.

I dunno about you, but to me all of this looks less like an honest effort to grapple with the issue of taxpayer complicity and more like an attempt to ride a trend as a marketing opportunity.

In , the group decided to confront the issue more directly, though they did it in a peculiar way.

Then: In 1679 London Yearly Meeting decided for the first time that fines or imprisonments resulting from refusal to pay war taxes were to be reported in the annual listings for Friends Sufferings for Truth. Now: In 1970 the American Friends Service Committee will enter into a court case questioning the right of the United States government to compel it to collect taxes from employees who are conscientiously opposed to paying that portion which goes to support war.

ad from the Friends Journal

Two employees of the AFSC — Lorraine Cleveland and Leonard Cadwallader — asked the Committee to stop withholding war taxes from their salaries. The AFSC complied with their request, sort of.

The Committee did not withhold the taxes from the employees’ salaries but instead “withdrew from its general funds enough to cover funds not withheld” and sent this to the IRS instead. Of course, to the IRS, none of that accounting really mattered… the money was money, whether it came from the AFSC payroll budget or its general fund. But then the AFSC applied for a refund of this amount. When the IRS denied the refund, the AFSC filed a lawsuit, claiming that:

For employees “to be forced to pay their war taxes without even the symbolic gesture of refusal and enforced collection by the Government,” according to the brief, violates the clause of the First Amendment that guarantees the free exercise of religion.

(These quotes come from an article in the issue of the Friends Journal.)

This all seems like a strangely convoluted path that tangles around the heart of the matter without really getting there. I suspect that this weird dance — refusing to withhold war taxes from their salaries, but then paying these taxes after all out of a different fund, and then immediately applying for a refund of the amount paid — was deemed necessary by the lawyers as a means of establishing legal standing that would enable them to successfully file their suit.

Also bolstering their argument about standing, the Committee’s legal brief explained:

American Friends Service Committee is further aggrieved, and threatened with irreparable economic injury because valuable, esteemed and loyal employees have threatened to resign from their employment because the operation of the withholding taxes has interfered with the expression of their religious conscientious objection to the support of war, and because contributors have questioned the propriety of their donations to an organization which acts as a collector of war taxes.

That’s all well and good, but the First Amendment argument… hoo boy… were they really arguing that the government is obligated to allow religious people unfettered access to a “symbolic gesture of refusal and enforced collection”? Is that what war tax resistance and the Quaker peace testimony are about? Is that what the First Amendment is about?

Civil disobedience is one thing this legal gambit pointedly wasn’t. The AFSC apparently felt a strong need to stay within the law wherever possible, perhaps because of the sensitive and vulnerable nature of some of their activities, or perhaps because they worried about alienating donors.

A letter-to-the-editor from Bill Samuel in the edition of the Journal expressed impatience with this caution. Excerpts:

I have known several [people] who would not be a part of a Society so comfortable and content with the evil ways of the larger society. They are not impressed with our “Quaker” President [Nixon] who grossly violates Quaker testimonies and has not once worshiped with Washington Friends.

Often, even worse than the meetings in complicity with evil, are the “social action” agencies, the prime example of which is the AFSC. My yearly meeting has seen the evil of investing in war, but not the AFSC. My monthly meeting refuses to pay the war tax on telephone service, but the AFSC even forbids regions [the AFSC is structured as a collection of semi-autonomous regional offices] that wish to follow such leadings from doing so.

An excerpt from an AFSC board meeting transcript, reprinted in the issue of the Journal, is an example of the temptation for the otherwise very pragmatic, hands-on group to retreat into abstractions and mumbo-jumbo when the issue of corporate war tax resistance came up:

When I think of the Spirit I think of something which ought, in the best of circumstances, to permeate each large and small action which we carry out throughout all of our lives. Even at those moments such as the present, where in terms of a particular issue such as taxes, we want to take some action which is paramount or transcending, we should take the action in the light of the whole sense of the destiny of the human spirit, which we perceive as somehow distilled and clarified at one particular historical juncture or through one particular individual or corporate action. If one thinks of the Spirit as a kind of unity, as I do, one has a great deal of difficulty in dealing with the tax question the way we have been doing… It seems to me that dealing with such questions of beliefs, one at a time and serially, mocks the Spirit of totality — it seems, rather, that all these things should somehow be wrapped up together in the Light.

But meanwhile, the AFSC lawsuit was making its slow progress through the legal system. According to the issue of the Journal:

Others [aside from Cleveland and Cadwallader] testifying for AFSC were Frances Neely, lobbyist for Friends Committee on National Legislation, from Washington, D.C.; Cushing Dolbeare, Philadelphia; Tom (John T.) Flower, San Antonio, TX; Henry Cadbury, Philadelphia, and Bronson Clark, executive secretary of AFSC. The government presented no witnesses and no evidence.

The Judge ruled in favor of the AFSC. (Before you get too excited, the Supreme Court ruled that all of the AFSC’s attention to standing issues was for naught, as “The Anti-Injunction Act… prohibits suits ‘for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax,’ [and so] bars the relief granted…” That court reversed the ruling that had been in favor of the AFSC.)

The issue of the Journal trumpeted the initial decision. Excerpts:

AFSC Tax Case:

Decision Supports Peace Testimony

In what may become a landmark case, a United States federal judge has found it unconstitutional for two Quakers and their employer, the American Friends Service Committee, to be compelled to support war through taxes withheld from their income.

“We are of the opinion that the withholding method of collection of taxes does foreclose plaintiffs’ ability to freely exercise that part of their beliefs requiring them to refuse to participate in war in any form…” the judge said. “The tax which is withheld is in fact a tax on their incomes which means that the support of whichever war we happen to be engaged in is coming out of their pockets. The ‘support of war’ also includes the payment of taxes in time of ‘peace’ so long as those taxes are used to support the military’s defense budget generally. Quakers make no distinction between an offensive or a defensive war. Both are equally objectionable.”

The judge also ruled that the section of the Internal Revenue Code requiring AFSC to in effect act as employer-middleman-tax collector for the government was in this case unconstitutional. Judge Newcomer ordered the government to refund $574.09 which AFSC had paid as taxes for the plaintiffs while the case was pending.

“Quakers have for many hundreds of years taken the position that they could not engage in war or violence of any kind and could not take the life of another human being,” the judge said in his 18-page opinion. “In more recent years this view has come to be known as the ‘peace testimony.’ The peace testimony is not a negative concept but is rather a positive idea requiring Quakers generally to strive to make war and violence unnecessary…

“When the peace testimony of individual Quakers comes into conflict with a governmental requirement, the first step usually taken is to petition the government to change its position. Quakers worked out such a change and compromise with respect to alternative service during World War Ⅰ and thereafter. If such a compromise cannot be worked out then the individual must re-examine his or her conscience to determine if it is possible to live with the government’s requirement or if not, then to disobey the law so as not to violate conscience.”

In commenting about the case, Lorraine Cleveland, who has been refusing to pay war taxes and has been raising her concern within the Service Committee even longer, said, “There has never been any doubt in my mind that the Quaker peace testimony was protected by the First Amendment, and the confirmation of this by the court strengthens my conviction that it is improper for me to pay war taxes.”

In an earlier statement prepared for the case, Lorraine Cleveland said her refusal to support war in any form “has contributed to my own integrity — my sense of wholeness — by bringing my actions into harmony with my deeply held beliefs and with the guidance of my conscience. It (also) has kept me sensitive to my own direct responsibility in relation to war in a world in which ‘everything is connected to everything else.’ ”

“It has been our position,” said Bronson Clark, executive secretary of AFSC, “that the First Amendment protects us as an organization because of our basically religious character, from acting as a tax collector for the government in this matter of war taxes. We also believe that we should not be forced to act as the government’s agent in a middleman role that deprives our employees of the right to confront the government individually on this issue.”

Cleveland also penned an op-ed about the case that I found in the Palm Beach Post:

Victory Over War Taxes

When on Judge Clarence Newcomer of the federal District Court in Philadelphia ruled in favor of me and one of my former co-workers and the American Friends Service Committee in our suit against the United States government, it marked a turning point in an effort my husband and I began .

Judge Newcomer declared unconstitutional the withholding-tax method of collecting taxes used for military purposes when, by its operation, it violated my religious beliefs. He also relieved my employer of any legal burden of taking those taxes out of my paycheck in consideration of my conscientious objection to paying such taxes.

This ruling has cleared the way for me now to confront the Internal Revenue Service as an individual without my employer acting as a surrogate tax collector for the IRS

The historic significance of Judge Newcomer’s ruling, though this was not a class action, is that it is the first judicial recognition of conscientious objection where war taxes are involved.

Many factors entered into my decision to oppose the Internal Revenue Service’s collection of war taxes from my paycheck. Perhaps the most momentous of those was in , when our government dropped atomic bombs on Japan. This seemed to be the most monstrous evil, and made me feel that some new and more demanding commitment was required of me.

By I had joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) and was serving with the American Friends Service Committee in postwar relief work in Europe where I saw firsthand the devastating effects of war. When it came time to pay our tax, we sent with our tax return a check payable to the United States Children’s Bureau in excess of the amount of tax due and requested that this contribution be accepted in settlement of our tax liability.

I explained to the government that the dropping of the bombs on Japan has led me to perceive that I could no longer voluntarily pay taxes for military purposes. I was willing to make an equivalent payment on an ear-marked basis to any nonmilitary government agencies that could accept such payments.

, I have resisted paying war taxes and the IRS has attached either my bank account or my salary. In the board of directors of the American Friends Service Committee, sensitive to the concern of some of its staff members, agreed to take action together with me and Leonard Cadwallader, another Quaker employe, to sue the United States to remove the committee as the withholder of taxes for military purposes. This led to our successful lawsuit.

It has seemed to me that a government in a free society should be able to work out an arrangement so that its departments do not violate the First Amendment of the Constitution while performing their functions.

This might cause the IRS some additional inconvenience, but, as Judge Newcomer said in his opinion: “The additional cost of collection, if any, is a small price to pay when compared with the possible frustration of the religious practice of bearing witness to one’s conscience, which practice has sought the aegis of the First Amendment.”

The tragedy is that so many individuals and organizations are over-whelmed by the complications of the governmental bureaucracy and see no way to make an effective protest on matters of conscience.

There was a single dissenting vote in the Supreme Court decision that overruled this temporary triumph — that of Justice William Douglas, whose dissent sounded remarkably (almost incredibly) sympathetic to the AFSC argument — going beyond dissenting on the issue of whether the case could be heard under the Anti-Injunction Act, and agreeing that the Quaker employees should have been permitted to resist their withheld taxes. Excerpts:

The sole question on the merits is whether the provision of the Internal Revenue Code… which requires employers to deduct and withhold from wages federal income taxes, is constitutional as applied to employees, who on religious grounds object to the withholding taxes on their salaries which represent that portion of the federal budget allocated to military expenditures. They invoke the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as they are Quakers who are opposed to participation in war in any form and who claim that this method of collection directly forecloses their ability freely to express that opposition, i.e., to bear witness to their religious scruples.

There is no evidence that questions the sincerity of the employees’ religious beliefs. Nor is there any issue raised as to whether that religious belief would give the employees a defense against ultimate payment of the tax. The District Court held that the withholding was unconstitutional as to the employees… a conclusion with which I agree.

The withholding process forecloses the employees from bearing witness against the use of these monthly deductions for military purposes. Under the opinion of this Court, they are deprived of bearing witness to their opposition to war — these withheld portions of their salaries pay the entire tax and they therefore have “no alternative legal remedy.”…

Quakers with true religious scruples against participating in war may no more be barred from protesting the payment of taxes to support war than they can be forcibly inducted into the Armed Forces and required to carry a gun, and yet be denied all opportunity to state their religious views against participation.… The Court misses the entire point of the present controversy. The employees are barred from protesting these monthly deductions under the Court’s opinion.… Here the employees challenge the withholding law as depriving them of their one and only chance of contesting the constitutionality of the withholding of the tax as applied to them.…

The religious belief which the Government violates here is that the employees must bear active witness to their objections to their support of war efforts. Dr. Edwin Bronner, who qualified as an expert on the history of Quakerism, gave testimony which… stated: “[M]ost Quakers have considered it an integral part of their faith to bear witness to the beliefs which they hold. It has always been the prevailing view that simple preaching of one’s beliefs is not sufficient, and that one’s actions must accord with and give expression to one’s beliefs. Many of the employees of the AFSC, including particularly appellees’ Cleveland and Cadwallader, share this belief, and for these employees, the operation of the withholding tax, which leaves them no option as to the payment of the taxes which they conscientiously question, operates as a direct abridgment of the expression and implementation of deeply cherished religious beliefs.”

If we are faithful to the command of the First Amendment, we would honor that religious belief. I have not bowed to the view of the majority that “some compelling state interest” will warrant an infringement of the Free Exercise Clause.…

…to construe the Act as the Court construes it does not avoid a constitutional question but directly raises one. The Act, read as literally as the Court reads it, plainly violates the First Amendment as applied to the facts of this case, for “no law” prohibiting the free exercise of religion includes every kind of law, including a law staying the hand of a judge who enjoins a law for the collection of taxes that trespasses on the First Amendment.

…when it comes to the First Amendment and the free exercise of religion, the mandate is that “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting” it. The Anti-Injunction Act is a “law”; and the Constitution gives no such preference to tax laws as to permit them to override religious scruples. May Congress enact a law that prohibits a minister from preaching if his taxes are in arrears? Or that disallows the making of a protest to a tax assessment even though the assessment and payment violate one’s religious scruples? Until today, I would have thought not. The First Amendment, as applied to the States by the Fourteenth, bars a tax on the conduct of a religious exercise by a minority even though that religious exercise is obnoxious to the majority.… Dicta to the effect that an allegation of unconstitutionality is irrelevant under the Anti-Injunction Act… — which the Court today elevates to a holding — were based on the premise that there was an alternative remedy to the unconstitutional actions. Here, as demonstrated, there is no other remedy. A refund suit is of no value, since the religious scruples which these taxpayers invoke relate to their inability to protest the payment, not to the use of the taxes themselves for military purposes.

A retrospective on the life of Henry J. Cadbury, published in the issue of the Journal, opened by recounting an episode from Cadbury’s testimony in this case:

…Marvin Karpatkin, chief attorney for the plaintiffs, had invited to the witness stand the man who had presided at the first meeting of the AFSC, on . Henry Joel Cadbury had always been a man of slight build. Now at the age of 89½, he appeared frail and wizened, his rather rumpled suit hanging on him, his manner occasionally hesitant, as though a little confused. He wore a hearing aid, but although it was turned up to full volume it was still necessary for him to ask a speaker to repeat himself. Those in the courtroom who did not know him might have wondered what value his testimony could have.

Speaking slowly and clearly, Marvin Karpatkin led Henry Cadbury through a recitation of his educational background, including his Ph.D. from Harvard — a teaching career which included 20 years as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard — his many published books and essays, his role in translating a new revision of the New Testament, his six honorary degrees. Henry Cadbury answered each question with careful modesty, but the onlookers were impressed, and when he acknowledged, in response to further probing, that he had met with presidents Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Nixon, the lawyer for the defense rather plaintively objected to this line of questioning. The judge, however, appeared interested and denied the motion.

Switching to peace, the lawyer asked Henry Cadbury to describe the Peace Testimony, and to tell the court what was meant by the term “bearing witness.”

“Bearing witness means, primarily, I suppose, a vocal expression of your belief in certain ideals, but beyond that in the consistent expression in your actions of those ideals.”

“Could you say in a nutshell that it means practicing what you preach?” the lawyer pressed.

Henry Cadbury’s eyes danced and his face lit up with a delightful, mischievous twinkle. Those who knew him well realized he had something amusing to say. “Yes, or only preaching what you practice,” he quipped.

Today, while the AFSC continues to decry the enormous amount of money American taxpayers spend on wars past, present, and future, it also continues to stop well short of recommending any direct action by taxpayers (or even, usually, acknowledging that as an option) — instead it engages in projects to “encourage Congress” and “urge our leaders” to do something about it.