Increasingly, War Tax Resisters Defy IRS in Protest Over Iraq
Bryan Nelson's federal tax return says he owes $3,082. So he mailed his 1040 form to the IRS before tomorrow's filing deadline. But for the second year in a row, the New Brunswick man did not send what he owes.His reason: "I wasn't going to pay for an illegal war in Iraq."
Nelson, 26, told the IRS as much in a letter included with his 2006 tax return and did the same thing last year, when he owed about $1,100. Both times he also included a list of charities where he sent the money instead. One is an organization that aids wounded war veterans.
In taking this step, Nelson joins the ranks of an estimated 10,000 Americans who will not pay federal taxes or pay only a portion of what they owe as a means of protesting the Iraq war or the nation's defense expenditures.
The IRS says opposition to government policies is no excuse for not giving Uncle Sam his due.
"Taxpayers have a right to express their opinions to the government in a public and private forum," the agency said in a statement. "The actions of expressing your opinion and also fulfilling your legal responsibilities of filing and paying taxes on a timely basis are separate issues."
Nelson, who works as a union organizer, considers what he is doing an act of civil disobedience. He knows his decision could lead to penalties including fines or jail.
"It's a serious act to violate the law," he said. "I respect the law and the tax system. I'm not trying to evade taxes. I'm just trying to minimize my complicity in what the government is doing. I want my money to go where it can help."
Although there is no concrete evidence that opposition to the war in Iraq portends an increase in the number of people who practice what is known as "war tax resistance," there are signs it is at least stoking interest in the practice, which dates to the Revolutionary War.
The renewed interest is being tracked by Ed Hedemann, a 62-year-old Brooklyn man who helped found the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in 1982. Daily hits on his organization's Web site have grown from an average of about 150 hits-a- day three years ago to about 800-a-day now.
"There is a steady increase in awareness," Hedemann said. "Obviously, not everybody who looks at our site is going to participate in war tax resistance, but this is at least an indication of the interest."
Another sign of interest is expected today, with the introduction of federal legislation to allow people opposed to military spending on religious or moral grounds to have their tax dollars go to federal agencies not involved in defense.
Although the legislation has been introduced in every Congressional session since 1972, its expected to have 45 co-sponsors this year, the largest number ever, according to the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, a Washington organization lobbying for the measure.
People like Hedemann, however, aren't waiting for a change in the tax code. Hede mann, a staunch peace activist, hasn't sent the IRS a dime since 1970 and instead has forwarded the $70,000 he owes for his work as a freelance writer and photographer to charity. The government has yet to collect. The IRS can not collect personal income taxes owed for more than 10 years.
"Sure, they come after me on a regular basis," he said. "But one of the things that helps me is that I file. I don't do anything funny with my forms. Plus, I'm self-employed and don't make a lot of money."
The closest the government ever came was in 1999, when Hedemann ended up in federal court. He escaped having to pay what the IRS said he owed.
Peter Goldberger, the lawyer who represented Hedemann, was not surprised. The criminal defense attorney who practices in suburban Philadelphia has represented dozens of war tax resisters.
He said that in general, the IRS goes easier on war tax resisters than it does the far larger universe of people who aren't paying because they simply want to keep the money or because they are affiliated with groups that claim that the federal government is not legally entitled to collect taxes.
Although the IRS says there is a gap of roughly $290 billion between taxes owed and received, Golberger's experience has shown that there's very little of it to collect from war tax resisters.
"Some of these folks go out of their way not to earn a taxable income," Goldberger said. Others generally file timely returns and explain why they're not paying some or all of what they owe.
"That protects them against most of the penalties the IRS can impose. Penalties are geared toward the level of deceit," Goldberger said.
Although the federal government filed criminal charges against war tax resisters fewer than 50 times since World War II, the most recent case was in New Jersey and the penalties were severe.
In 2005, three members of a Vineland- based religious society called the Restored Israel of Yahweh were sentenced to federal prison terms ranging from six to 27 months for failing to pay $300,000 in taxes from a construction company they owned on the grounds that their religious beliefs precluded funding war.
Goldberger, who represented one of the defendants, said they were sincere in their beliefs. But they made several errors, including failing to pay state taxes and withholding taxes for employees.
"I don't think they were fraudulent, but they did some things that allowed a prosecutor to portray them as fraudulent," Goldberger said.
Nelson, the New Brunswick man, expects the IRS will eventually come after him for what he owes. But he's mentally prepared for the worst.
"Jail is extremely rare," he said. "But if it's the price I have to pay, it's the price I have to pay."
Wayne Woolley may be reached at email@example.com
© 2007 The Star Ledger