Dear IRS: A Quaker Journey with War Tax Resistance

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In September 2010, I received a letter from the IRS, which said that I had to pay a “frivolous filing penalty” of $5000 for my action of withholding some of the money I owed for my 2009 taxes. “We have determined that the purported tax return you sent is frivolous and your position has no basis in law.”  Frivolous. The word stuck in my mind.  Part of this journey is about words, about patience, about truth.  It gave me a sort of mantra that is precious to me now, “I didn't ask for this, it is not about me, and way will open."

I compose a letter each year to place in the envelope with the tax form I have accurately completed.  In 2009, my letter read, in part: “Dear IRS workers, Thank you for the work that you do. Once again I find that I cannot willingly pay all of my taxes. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I oppose war and the support of war. In order to not support the war currently being waged by the government of the United States against people in Iraq and Afghanistan I am withholding 30% of my income taxes. I am basing this percentage on the enclosed document from the Friends Committee on National Legislation.”

In response to the IRS’s assertion that I had made a frivolous filing, I wrote, “On September 20, 2010, I received a letter, suggesting that I sent in a frivolous return. Would you please check your records to see if this letter was sent in error?” At first, I wanted to write eloquently to the IRS about my beliefs. Now I suspect it makes no difference what one writes in response to a warning from the IRS.

Throughout my journey of war tax resistance, I have worked with a clearness committee in my Monthly Meeting and the Sufferings Committee of Intermountain Yearly Meeting.  My clearness committee has met as a whole with me numerous times, and individually these Friends have provided me with much informal support. Not all members of my clearness committee have been in agreement with tax resistance, but all have been supportive of me following my leadings.

In July 2011, I got the next letter from the IRS, which said:  “The penalty is $5,000 for each person who files a frivolous tax return. If you wish to contest the assertion of this penalty, you must fully pay the entire penalty and file a claim for refund.”  The date for paying the penalty was in 10 days. I did not have $5000. 

In his essay, Civil Disobedience, Thoreau notes, "A very few serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it." As I read these words I felt both encouraged and discouraged. The things I am concerned about go back centuries. I reread John Woolman.  He wrote about refusing to pay taxes for wars before the Revolutionary War.

In August 2011, I wrote another letter to the IRS, letting them know I would not be sending money but would be appealing the penalty.  I got a notice from my credit union that there would be a levy on my account to collect for taxes I owed for 2008- 2009.

I called the IRS and spoke with a woman who was very nice. I find that few people really know very much about “frivolous filing.” The woman I spoke with had not dealt with this type of issue before and kept saying that the penalty was related to my not paying the tax, which is actually not the case. The penalty has to do with the filing, not the withholding of taxes.  As we wound up the conversation, we talked a little about learning to listen to people, and I felt that we had made a human connection. I think that at times our institutions are like transformer toys, and we need to turn and twist and search to find the human being inside the machines. One of my goals on this journey with the IRS has been to listen and speak nonviolently and compassionately with people. I believe that through our daily contacts and actions we can build a nonviolent world.

In September 2011, I got a notice by e-mail from the IRS that money would be levied from my bank account for taxes owed for 2008 and 2009. A week before payday I got an e-mail saying the wages would be garnished.  They took most of the paycheck. Then they took money from my next paycheck, more than what they said they would be taking.  With these two levies, the IRS had all the money the frivolous filing penalty was related to.  “I didn't ask for this, it is not about me, and way will open."

On Dec 16th, I sent a letter to the IRS which said, “This letter is submitted to request a face-to-face hearing regarding the intent to levy a frivolous filing penalty regarding my 2009 taxes. I am requesting this hearing based on the following points: 1) The frivolous filing penalty was not intended to include my situation;  2) The penalty is disproportionately large compared to the issue;  and 3) The form was filed on time and correctly.”

In speaking with a woman at the IRS, I learned if one files and does not pay it is not frivolous. If you file, do not pay, but also enclose a letter explaining the religious, moral or ethical reasons behind your not paying, then this action is considered frivolous. What a strange world we are in.

On January 20, 2012, I got a notice from IRS saying I had appealed correctly, and they would contact me within 60 days to set up a hearing. For some reason the penalty was now listed as $4,302.26. Another mystery.

Students from the University of New Mexico law school decided to take on my case.  They planned to argue it not in terms of my position on war taxes or the IRS regulations but in terms of “case law” and in relation to how the penalty was applied.  I was surprised at how much I was relieved by this news.  The lawyers planned to send an argument to the IRS based on the word “AND.”  There are two requirements for getting the penalty, one is a frivolous argument and the other is that the form is filled out incorrectly. Between these two requirements there is the word “AND.”  It is “AND” and not “OR.”  One must do both to merit the penalty.

I must admit I wanted to win. I thought about the drones, the people in Afghanistan, the huge military budget.  I was humbled to realize, even if I lost and had to pay this penalty, the sun would shine, the rain would fall. It is just money.  It is not my child dying in my arms, not my home destroyed.  It is someone else's child, someone else's home.

The law school sent a seven-page argument plus documents to the IRS appeals officer.  On the way to Yearly Meeting, we stopped by the UNM law school and picked up a copy of the argument. At this meeting the law professor very clearly told me that this would not be a “slam dunk.” If we went to court, even if our position was correct and our arguments would good, the judge could still rule against us. They do not like frivolous filers. I have been put in this category incorrectly, and now I am discriminated against because of it. Perceptions seem more important than reality.

On Monday, July 28, we got a call from the IRS demanding $5000 due. On Tuesday, when the law school replied that we would go “on to tax court” instead, the IRS backed down to $500. Wednesday, I called the law school and said, “Okay, I will pay the $500 and not appeal further.”  I feel like this was a labyrinth I was ready to get out of.  “I didn't ask for this, it is not about me, and way will open."

The month of August was hard, after I gave up my frivolous ways.  I feel now that a more radical position is a stronger one. It hurt to compromise, to sign a letter, to actually sign the check for the taxes. To be “manipulated into compliance.” To realize, perhaps, what others knew all along – the power of the IRS. ♦

Vickie Aldrich is a member of Las Cruces Friends Meeting in New Mexico and grew up in Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado.  A graduate of Friends World College, Vicky is now semi-retired from teaching community college mathematics.