Federal appeals court: Quaker must pay federal taxes

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

A federal appeals court has sided with the Internal Revenue Service’s attempts to recover taxes from a Quaker who refused to pay them for religious reasons.

Priscilla M. Lippincott Adams, a devout Quaker and secretary for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, has refused to pay federal income taxes, citing a religious belief against supporting a military. According to Adams, paying taxes to fund the military is against the will of God. She has maintained that she would pay all her federal income taxes if the money were directed only to nonmilitary spending.

Adams also has maintained that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 requires the federal government to accommodate her religious beliefs and permit her a tax exemption.

RFRA of 1993 required courts to apply a rigid constitutional test to government actions and laws that might incidentally infringe on a person’s or group’s religious practices. The test required the government to show that its challenged law furthered a compelling societal interest and that it was applied in the least-restrictive means possible. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the act in its 1997 ruling in Boerne v. Flores. The high court concluded, in part, that Congress could not tell state courts what constitutional test to use when deciding religious-liberty cases. Since that ruling some state and federal courts have interpreted the Boerne decision as invalidating RFRA only as applied to the states, not to the federal government.

Earlier this month a panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Adams that RFRA of 1993 still does apply to the federal government, but rejected her request for a religious exemption from payment of federal taxes.

In deciding whether RFRA of 1993 would force the government to give Adams an exemption, the 3rd Circuit said it would “assume without deciding that RFRA is constitutional as applied to the federal government.” The court, however, added that “some commentators have noted that RFRA may be unconstitutional as applied to federal law.”

The 3rd Circuit cited Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar and professor at Yeshiva University in New York, as one of the commentators arguing that RFRA also was also invalidated as to federal law.

“The Court’s decision in Boerne reaffirms that the Supreme Court is ‘supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution,’” Hamilton wrote in a 1998 University of Pennsylvania Law Journal article. “In all of its applications, RFRA subverts this principle. RFRA is a blatant attempt by Congress to rewrite the meaning of the Free Exercise Clause in contravention of the Supreme Court’s interpretation.”

Before the 3rd Circuit, Adams argued that forcing her to pay federal taxes would “substantially burden” her religious practices and that although the government had a “compelling interest” in collecting taxes, it had not attempted to find a “least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.

The 3rd Circuit disagreed and instead upheld a ruling made last year by the United States Tax Court. The tax court denied Adams’ request for an exemption. It stated that “the uniform, mandatory participation in the Federal income tax system, irrespective of religious belief, is a compelling governmental interest” and “as a result, requiring petitioner’s participation in the Federal income tax system is the only, and thus least restrictive means of furthering the Government’s interest.”

Moreover, the 3rd Circuit justified the tax court’s decision by citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in United States v. Lee, in which Amish tradesmen were forced to pay Social Security taxes as employers, even though they objected on religious-liberty grounds. The Amish believe in caring for their own destitute.

“We acknowledge the sincerity of Adams’ beliefs, but as the Supreme Court noted in Lee, we can easily imagine a plethora of other sects that would also have an equally legitimate concern with the usage of tax dollars to fund activities antithetical to their religion,” Justice Marjorie O. Rendell wrote for the three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit.

Adams also argued that the Amish tradesmen were later granted an exemption by Congress, thus proving that the IRS “can and should accommodate religion through a series of exemptions.”

Rendell, however, said it was not the judiciary’s duty to create exemptions from federal tax law.

“Adams misconstrues the nature of the tax system itself,” Rendell wrote. “We do not doubt that such legislative enactments can and do occur, but tax exemptions are a matter of legislative grace. It does not follow from congressional action on such matters that the Commissioner or the courts are therefore encouraged to carve out exceptions to the statutory scheme.”