Recently, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8, which effectively bans same-sex marriage in the state. One reaction to the news is anger-and protest. Musician Melissa Etheridge gained national attention for her blog in which she vows to stop paying taxes until she’s afforded the same rights as heterosexual citizens. It seems that sizeable numbers of the LGBT community are planning to follow Etheridge’s lead, which leads me to wonder what consequences they will face. . . .
According to an official IRS report, filing tax returns in not voluntary and citizens do not have the right to withhold tax payments based on moral objection. The IRS cites a large body of case law supporting its position, and effectively knocks down the argument that citizens can refuse to pay income taxes based on moral grounds under the First Amendment, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The IRS vigorously asserts that the First Amendment does not grant citizens the right to refuse to pay income taxes based on religious or moral grounds, or because taxes are used to fund government programs that they oppose.
OK, so the IRS seems pretty sure about its position-but how strictly does it enforce rules against conscientious tax objectors? What’s actually happened to people who’ve refused to pay taxes based on moral considerations? According to some members of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, conscientious objectors to the war have faced unpredictable consequences. While criminal prosecution is possible, this is pretty rare. To be exact, since the 1940s, fewer than 30 people have been jailed for refusing to pay war taxes.
The IRS is more likely to collect taxes through civil means. Usually, the IRS sends notices to objectors’ homes and assesses penalties in an effort to intimidate them before it finally takes action-sometimes years later. Final action may consist of garnishing wages, seizing bank accounts, or even seizing cars and houses. Of course, some non-filers go unnoticed. . . .
While the tax contributions of Etheridge and other well-to-do citizens would surely be missed by the government, most people simply don’t have as much financial clout. Further, only about 59% of all Americans pay federal income taxes at all. Finally, the fines and interest the IRS assesses on protestors might leave the government with more money than if protestors had paid their taxes in the first place.
It’s unclear if refusing to pay taxes will prompt the government to reconsider its position. What is clear is that it will take a large and organized effort by the LGBT community to make a significant impact on government through tax resistance.