Quaker Prefers Jail to Paying Taxes for War

An Associated Press story that made the Columbus Dispatch:

Quaker Says She’ll Face Jail Rather Than Pay Fine

by Sue Cross
Associated Press Writer

When Dr. Marjorie Nelson wrote “war tax deduction” on her federal income tax return to protest military spending, the Internal Revenue Service fined the 44-year-old Quaker $500 for filing a “frivolous tax return.”

Miss Nelson still hasn’t decided what to do with her tax forms, but says she’s willing to go to prison to uphold her religious beliefs if a court orders her to pay the fine. At least a half dozen other Ohioans face a similar choice.

“This business of laboring with the IRS is not my career. It’s just something that happened to me — I certainly find it strange,” said Miss Nelson, a teacher at Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine since .

In figuring a refund amount Miss Nelson believed was equal to her taxes that would go to support the military, she attached a letter explaining her religious objections. She says the $500 fine is a ploy to limit free speech on the nuclear war issue.

“It seems to me the government’s main purpose should be to collect the taxes, not to stifle a statement of conscientiousness. I get the feeling the government is trying to chill dissent, to intimidate people so they won’t speak up over issues of conscience.”

But the government attorney handling frivolous return cases in Ohio said efficient tax collection will be threatened if people aren’t stopped from filing inaccurate returns.

“It does not require great imagination to see that if all taxpayers were free to act as the plaintiff (Miss Nelson) acted here, our self-assessment system of taxation would be seriously jeopardized,” attorney Seth Heald said in documents filed in U.S. District Court at Columbus, where Miss Nelson’s case is pending.

Heald, of the U.S. Justice Department tax division, said incorrectly figuring a refund is just as wrong as falsifying income and causes just as much work for IRS clerks.

He said Congress passed the frivolous return law specifically to apply to war tax deductors and that waiting for a court to look at each return before judging it frivolous would let people ask for refunds “because the sky is blue.”

Since the frivolous return law took effect in , people across the country have challenged the fines in court.

Cases have been decided — all against the “war tax” deductors — in California and Massachusetts, but many people will fill out tax returns before their cases are decided. If courts rule against them and they don’t pay the fines, Miss Nelson believes they could go to jail.

In court documents, Miss Nelson said the IRS doesn’t fine people who refuse to pay taxes without explaining their objection.

She said her dispute with the government is the only way people who have taxes deducted from paychecks can oppose military funding. The self-employed can refuse to pay taxes, but most people can only ask for refunds of taxes they have already paid.

Bruce Campbell, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer handling Miss Nelson’s case, said it’s unlikely she or anyone else would go to prison.

Where are they now, 26 years later? Nelson is still resisting war taxes, I believe, or at least was as late as when she was interviewed for another article on war tax resisters for the Dispatch. I think also that Seth Heald is still working the tax angle at the Justice Department, and Bruce Campbell is still filing briefs for the ACLU.

Turning the chronometer in the other direction: Dr. Marjorie Nelson was captured by North Vietnam during the Tet offensive of and held as a prisoner of war for over two months. She had been doing medical work in Vietnam with the American Friends Service Committee. She later testified before Congress about evidence of torture she saw in patients she treated who had been imprisoned at the interrogation center at Quảng Ngãi prison, which had been run jointly by the forces of the United States and South Vietnam.