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American Album

Tax resistance is as American as apple pie, but it's not the money, it's about 'spiritual honesty.'

April 17, 1989|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

DEERFIELD, Mass. — During the Revolutionary War, this tiny frontier town in north-central Massachusetts fought valiantly against King George III's hated taxes: the Revenue Act taxing sugar and silk, the Stamp Act tax on documents and newspapers, the Townshend Act levy on glass and tea.

When the British finally fled the Colonies, the proud Americans here raised a red "Liberty" flag on Main Street. A copy of that flag still waves here from a rough-hewn pole that stands between recently restored 18th-Century homes.

Today, the deadline for filing federal income tax returns, finds a surprising remnant of the early American anti-tax spirit thriving in the wooded hills here and in dozens of other communities across the nation.

Thousands of self-described "war tax resisters" commit civil disobedience each year by refusing to pay all or part of what the government claims is due. Unlike tax evaders, resisters openly defy the law, citing their opposition to U.S. military or foreign policies. Many of them will demonstrate this week at post offices and offices of the Internal Revenue Service.

"We haven't filed since 1948," said Wally Nelson, an 80-year-old Deerfield farmer who was jailed as a conscientious objector during World War II. His 65-year-old wife, Juanita, added: "I don't feel any obligation to give money to kill people. Morally, it's the wrong thing to do."

Over the years, the IRS has jailed Juanita Nelson, has tried to take the couple's cars and has sent dozens of "final notices" demanding $18,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties. All to no avail. Today the Nelsons grow most of their own food and live in a hand-built cabin without running water, telephone or electricity.

In nearby Colrain, Randall Kehler and Betsy Corner file their 1040 forms each April, but for the last 12 years, instead of paying taxes, they have given the money to anti-war and charity groups and have written the IRS and Congress explaining their opposition to nuclear weapons and to military intervention abroad.

"We do pay state and local taxes," said Kehler, 44, an anti-war activist in the 1960s who headed a nationwide nuclear freeze group in the '70s. "We don't have a problem with taxation. It's a dispute with the federal government over how they use the money."

The dispute escalated this year. On March 2, four IRS agents came to the couple's modest, two-bedroom farmhouse warmed by a wood-burning stove and the sound of their 9-year-old daughter practicing piano. The agents said the house was officially seized and would be sold at auction unless they paid $26,917.

"We're not going to pay the taxes," said Kehler. He said the family will resist eviction but is prepared to lose the house if need be. (The property was assessed recently at $44,500.)

Others are less adamant. Alan Eccleston, 53, was an Army first lieutenant in Korea. A soft-spoken Quaker living in Hadley, Mass., he carefully files his return each year but withholds 36%--reflecting the military share of federal spending. He pays that portion later, with interest and penalties, when the IRS takes the money from his salary or bank account.

"This is not about money, it's about spiritual honesty," Eccleston said.

Accurate figures are hard to find. The War Resisters League in New York estimates that 10,000 Americans refuse to pay taxes on religious, moral or ethical grounds. Moreover, the group says, about 100,000 people do not pay the 3% federal excise tax on telephone service, initially imposed to support the Pentagon.

Such numbers are nonsense, the IRS says. "We stopped keeping (statistics) because it's just not a significant problem," said IRS spokesman Wilson Fadely in Washington. "It's really died down since Vietnam."

The real problem, Fadely said, is that millions of taxpayers will evade or mistakenly avoid paying $87.1 billion this year. Moreover, 16 major corporations, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, legally paid no federal taxes last year, according to the congressional-watchdog group Citizens for Tax Justice.

The IRS prosecuted 2,921 people last year for false documents, failure to file returns and other tax offenses. War tax resisters more often are assessed civil penalties or fined $500 for filing frivolous returns. Only a few have followed the example of Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail in 1846 rather than pay taxes to support the U.S. war with Mexico.

"The IRS knows tax resistance is as American as apple pie and the Boston Tea Party," said Pablo Stanfield of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in Seattle.

Still, breaking the law is not easy for many. Robert M. Myers, an 80-year-old Quaker and retired social worker in Williamsburg, Mass., thought long and hard before he and his wife in 1982 began withholding half their annual taxes to oppose "weapons of death." He deposits the money in an escrow account, but is still troubled.

"I realize the IRS does not make the decision on how the money is spent," Myers said, "but I don't know who else to take it up with."

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