Tax Resistance in “Gospel Herald”, 1988

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts about war tax resistance as it was reported in back issues of Gospel Herald, journal of the (Old) Mennonite Church.

“Gospel Herald” logo, circa 1988

In the Mennonite Church danced right up to the brink of committing to corporate war tax resistance, as other church bodies around them considered their own similar actions.

The traditionalists were increasingly restive, though. For example, in the issue, a letter to the editor from Robert L. Beiler took the traditional Romans 13 line and then went on to pointedly ask why war tax resisting Mennonites don’t seem to make any noise about taxpayer-funded abortions — and anyway the United States is a great country and we should be happy to pay taxes here.

The issue reported on how another Christian group was dealing with war tax resisters in the fold:

Quaker denomination supports staff war-tax witness

The General Board of Friends United Meeting — a Quaker denomination based in Richmond, Ind. — has adopted a policy of not withholding the federal taxes of employees who are conscientious objectors to paying taxes used for military purposes. This means the denomination is willing to violate Internal Revenue Service tax regulations in order to support the conscience of its employees.

The policy requires employees who desire to participate in the witness of military tax refusal to first participate in a “clearness process” with their local congregation. They are encouraged to compute the military percentage of their income tax, using the figures of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and voluntarily deposit that sum in a special denominational account held for that purpose. The remainder would be submitted to the IRS.

In taking this action. Friends United Meeting is pursuing a long Quaker tradition of recognizing all outward warfare to be inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It joins one other denomination in taking this action — the General Conference Mennonite Church. Friends United Meeting is also seeking legislative remedy through the U.S. Peace Tax Fund bill in Congress. This legislation would permit tax payers morally opposed to war to have the military part of their taxes allocated to peacemaking.

Representatives of several “traditional peace church” denominations met to try to swap ideas about how to cope with the war tax resistance issue (Paul Schrag reporting):

Historic peace churches tackle thorny issue of tax withholding

Praying for peace while paying for war is a contradiction that historic peace churches must oppose by speaking out and taking action, representatives of those churches agreed at a consultation in Richmond, Ind. For some people, war tax resistance — refusing to pay the portion of one’s taxes that goes to the military — is a moral imperative. Their consciences will not allow them to help pay for machine guns and nuclear bombs.

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 nearly 40 Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers struggled with at the meeting.

The church leaders, agency 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 Peace Tax Fund Bill in the U.S. 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, if necessary.

“You may think the world will little note nor long remember what has happened here,” said Marian Franz, a Mennonite who is executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. “But I regard it as a historic meeting.”

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.

Mennonite Church leaders, including Executive Secretary James Lapp and Moderator-Elect George Brunk Ⅲ, came to the meeting to explore church policy options on military tax withholding. The General Assembly of the Mennonite Church asked the General Board to develop a recommendation on the issue for consideration at the next General Assembly in .

“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.” General Board plans to formulate questions about tax withholding for congregations to discuss. It will prepare its recommendation based on congregations’ responses.

The meeting, held at Quaker Hill Conference Center, took place in an atmosphere of excitement generated by a gathering of people from different traditions who share a vision. In the long and lively discussions, participants challenged each other and their churches to recommit themselves to active peacemaking and prophetic witnessing on the war tax issue.

Robert Hull, peace/justice secretary for the General Conference Mennonite Church, 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.

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.

IRS has not taken even this action against the four GC employees who are not having their taxes withheld. They pay the nonmilitary portion of their taxes themselves and deposit the 53 percent that would have gone to the military in a designated account. IRS has not touched that account since it was established after GC delegates approved the policy in . 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 nonwithholding policy , has had tax money seized, plus interest and penalties, from its resisters’ bank accounts. The Friends United Meeting adopted a nonwithholding 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 his denomination develop a policy on tax resistance.

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. The manual is expected to be available .

The consultation was sponsored by the Friends Committee on War Tax Concerns and New Call to Peacemaking. The latter is a cooperative peace organization of the historic peace churches. New Call to Peacemaking plans to sponsor a military tax withholding meeting for a wider range of church groups sometime in the future.

Whether or not military tax resistance “works,” participants agreed that people’s moral imperative to follow their consciences must be respected. “No conscientious objector ever stopped a conflict,” said William Strong, a Quaker representative. “But they had to explain what they did, and the vision was kept alive, and those ripples — you don’t know where they stop.

The Mennonite Church was playing catch up with their cousins the General Conference Mennonite Church when it came to deciding how to react to employees who were conscientious objectors to military taxation, but now it was their turn to begin the process. From the issue:

General Board considers issue of church agency tax withholding

As the result of a General Assembly mandate , Mennonite Church General Board has initiated a plan to consider church agency tax withholding. The General Assembly action calls for General Board to bring to the assembly a proposal for how the church should respond to questions of conscientious objection to the payment of military taxes and the institutional withholding of the military portion of employees’ income taxes.

Steps in the consideration process, as approved at the board’s meeting, began in with participation in the interdenominational Employers Tax Withholding Consultation in Richmond, Ind. Then a working document, clarifying the issues and enumerating possible responses, will be prepared for General Board study.

Board members will devote a day to the issue prior to their regular meeting. The discernment process will continue as revised copies of the working document are available for conference and congregational study .

A summary of conference responses will be included in the General Board docket in , when the board will develop a recommendation to be presented for General Assembly action in .

The issue noted that the “first major public event” of the Peace and Justice Center at Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ont. “was a… seminar to explore alternatives to paying taxes for military purposes.”

In a letter to the editor in the issue, Jurgen Brauer wrote that after reading Tolstoy he came to feel that “it is high time that the issue of tax withholding (or redirecting) becomes the major issue of the church.”

The “Taxes for Peace” fund gave its annual update in the issue. They’d decided to donate all of the taxes redirected through the fund to the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund , and announced that they’d redirected about $4,000 to “the Lancaster County, Pa., Peacework Alternatives project.”

A note in the issue:

Poster on war tax resistance from Mennonite Central Committee. The words on the poster are by John Stoner: “We are war tax resisters because we have discovered some doubt as to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and have decided to give the benefit of the doubt to God.” It is available from MCC at…

The General Board of the Mennonite Church met in :

Chris Longenecker, standing at a podium, addresses a group seated at desks

Chris Longenecker tells General Board how she decided to ask her employer — Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions — to stop withholding the military portion of her taxes from her wages. Eastern Board, like other Mennnonite Church institutions, is waiting for guidance on this issue from General Board before it honors a request like this.

General Board takes step in non-withholding of war taxes

In a decision that will lead to breaking the law if approved by the General Assembly , the General Board of the Mennonite Church has recommended that war taxes not be withheld from the paychecks of denominational employees who request that. The 32-member board passed the recommendation unanimously, with a few abstentions.

The action, which came during the board’s meeting in Kitchener, Ont., was a long-awaited response to several people at church agencies and schools who, because of conscience, do not want to pay the portion of their taxes — about 50 percent in the United States — that goes to the military. It was also a response to an impatient General Assembly that instructed General Board to take a stand on the issue.

“This has been an area we have been reluctant to move in,” said General Board executive secretary Jim Lapp in introducing the matter. Ed Metzler, the denomination’s peace and social concerns secretary, said the main reasons for taking the non-withholding action are to allow individual expressions of conscience and to witness against militarism. “But is this the best way to witness against militarism?” asked Tim Burkholder of Northwest Conference. Other board members wondered if the church corporately should break the law to satisfy the consciences of a few individuals.

The board members, meeting at Pioneer Park Christian Fellowship, gathered a day earlier than usual to take up the war tax matter. Metzler arranged for a variety of speakers to address the subject, including two persons who have requested non-withholding — Chris Longenecker of Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Carman Albrecht of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario.

John Stoner, executive secretary of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace Section, delivered a ringing “call for courage” based on the book of Revelation. “It is unthinkable that John the Revelator would not see, in our time and place, the war tax demands of Western democratic militaristic capitalism as a challenge to our faithfulness to the witness of Jesus,” he said.

Bob Hull, peace/justice secretary for the General Conference Mennonite Church, explained the lengthy process that led to his denomination’s decision to honor requests for non-withholding. It included a four-year effort to explore all legal channels — legislative, judicial, administrative — for avoiding the payment of war taxes. Finally, at their convention in Bethlehem, Pa., 72 percent of the GC delegates voted to defy the law — the first denomination to do so. (Several Quaker groups have since done the same.) To date, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has not moved against the GC Church.

In the discussion that followed, several people argued that consistent conscientious objection to war should include a refusal to fight as well as to pay for fighting. Others wondered why the Mennonite Church — and other denominations — agreed so easily to a law in the U.S. (and earlier in Canada) that required them to withhold taxes from employees’ wages, thus putting the church in the role of tax collector for the government.

For a while it looked like the board members might postpone action on the issue or pass the buck to the 22 conferences of the Mennonite Church. But Moderator Ralph Lebold reminded them of their instructions from General Assembly, and Dean Swartzendruber of Iowa-Nebraska Conference urged the board to “decide here today.”

In the end, the decision was made after much deliberation and considerable rewriting of the proposed action. In addition to honoring requests for non-withholding, it includes support for the Peace Tax Fund bill in the U.S. Congress that would provide conscientious objection to war taxes and a call for “serious attention” to the question of the church as tax collector.

The recommendation will now go to the conferences for review. , General Board will take the responses from the conferences and shape a final recommendation for submission to the General Assembly. The board members agreed that the recommendation will be introduced in person to the leaders of each conference by a denominational staff person.

Gospel Herald kept readers up on the news of other denominations struggling with the same issue ():

Quakers agree to aid workers who refuse to pay “military” taxes

Philadelphia-area Quakers took a historic step recently to aid employees who were opposed to paying taxes for war purposes. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, in its 308th annual session, agreed to withhold but not forward to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service the estimated military portion of its employees’ federal income taxes. This money will be set aside in a special fund and paid to IRS with interest when there is assurance the money will not go for military spending.

Currently the organization has 42 employees, of which an average of seven are tax resisters at any time. The decision to establish the set-aside fund for war tax resisters augments the decision to refuse cooperation with IRS levies on salaries of war tax resisters employed by the Yearly Meeting. The policies could make the group liable for sizable fines and penalties for breaking federal law. The Yearly Meeting also could incur liability for employees’ unpaid taxes.

And some Mennonite congregations were taking stands on their own (, Cindy Hines Kurfman reporting):

Indiana congregation supports its members who don’t pay “war taxes”

War-tax resistance is an important subject at Lafayette (Ind.) Mennonite Fellowship — important enough that members commit themselves to “support for those who, for reason of conscience, resist ‘war tax’ payment.”

To Ken Nagele, who began refusing to pay a portion of his taxes in , war-tax resistance originally meant not paying “the percentage associated with nuclear weapons.” He now refuses to pay for “all current and past military spending,” but still pays the portion that benefits veterans in the belief that he is “helping those scarred by killing.”

Nagele uses a Friends Committee on National Legislation document each year to determine how much he will withhold. This year the figure is 53.1 percent. The refused portion will be deposited in the Near Eastside Community Federal Credit Union of Indianapolis. This community-development credit union makes loans to low-income persons and small businesses in an economically depressed portion of the city.

Another member, Mary Ann Zoeller, is refusing to pay war taxes for the first time. “As a Christian, I knew I could not, in good conscience, support the killing of others,” she says. “Yet the existing tax laws require me to do just this, by asking me to pay taxes that finance military services. Following Christ’s teachings of love of his persecutors, even to the loss of life, I have been led to question my support of our military.” Zoeller sends the war-tax portion to Amnesty International, a human rights organization.

Alternative methods of war-tax resistance are also demonstrated by several families in the Lafayette congregation. One family, whose income is below the taxable level, has written a letter to their tax commissioner since which explains their belief that paying for war is a sin. Another couple keeps their payment to a minimum by following the example of their parents; live simply and give a large percentage of income to the church.

Another example ():

A Virginia congregation has decided to officially support its members who refuse to pay the military portion of their taxes. Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., has 20 members who illegally withhold some of their tax money as an act of conscientious objection to war taxes or are seriously considering it. “The congregation’s decision grew out of the desire and concern of a few of us that our action be more than the isolated action of individual conscience,” said Orval Gingrich, one of the 20. The congregation is encouraging all its members to include letters of protest with their income tax returns and has notified Internal Revenue Service that it fully supports its members who don’t pay war taxes.

By it was time for another backlash letter to the editor. Titus Martin hit the predictable Romans 13 notes and warned readers against relying on their consciences when conscience and scripture disagree. As a compromise he suggested that readers use charitable deductions rather than civil disobedience to lower their taxes.

Even the Presbyterians were getting in on the tax resistance act, according to this news brief:

The document describes obedience to civil authority as normative for Christians but asks the denomination to set up a special fund to support Presbyterians who suffer financial losses because of a stance of resistance. The paper argues that withholding taxes to protest U.S. military policy is proper under certain circumstances. Such activists are entitled to emotional support from the church, the paper says.

The IRS went on the offensive against the Philadelphia Yearly meeting, which may have been frightening news for a Mennonite Church which was contemplating taking a similar stand ():

Employees’ tax protest prompts IRS lawsuit against Quakers

The Internal Revenue Service has filed two suits against a Quaker group in Pennsylvania because the organization has refused to attach the wages of two employees who have withheld part of their income taxes as a conscientious protest against military spending. The lawsuits against the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends seek $17,000 in connection with federal taxes that were not paid by William Grassie and David Falls. IRS said it takes such action against the employer of anyone who fails to pay taxes on the ground that salaries are property that can be levied by the government in such cases.

Finally, a note in the issue read:

A new resource is available on the war-tax issue for Mennonite Church conferences — and others — that are currently considering whether church institutions should be instructed to not withhold taxes from the wages of employees who express conscientious objection to the military portion of their taxes. Conferences are to submit their counsel to General Board in preparation for a proposal to General Assembly at Normal . The resource is a just-published book called Fear God and Honor the Emperor: A Manual on Military Tax Withholding for Religious Employers. Each purchaser of the book will be on a mailing list to receive future updates on the subject. The book is available at a special price of $11 from Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries…