When tax dollars conflict with religious conviction

Jeff Hawkes

On many nights Paul Leatherman climbed onto a roof not far from downtown Saigon and watched his countrymen unleash lethal rain.

He saw glowing tracer bullets fall hour after hour upon an unseen enemy targeted by a lumbering Douglas AC-47 nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon.

It was 1967, and Leatherman was the administrator of Vietnam Christian Service. He routinely flew into cities across South Vietnam to further the group's mission of feeding refugees and treating the sick. On some of those flights he saw the Navy shelling the countryside or planes laying down clouds of defoliants across swaths of forest. On other nights back in Saigon he heard the rumble of bombing runs.

But what made a deep impression upon Leatherman, a Mennonite who had served in a mental hospital during World War II, was the sight of that slowly circling prop-plane laying down a withering hail of lead night after night.

Heartfelt objection

Leatherman knew nothing could survive the 100 bullets per second fired by each of the plane's three left-side machine guns.

"That was indiscriminate killing," Leatherman said. "Anywhere those bullets hit was a dead person. I decided I can not pay for this. I'm not going to be a part of this war machine."

A war-tax resister was born.

Since about 1969, Leatherman, of Lancaster, has been challenging the idea that pacifists should be compelled to pay for war. He says paying war taxes violates his religious convictions, just as being made to pay for contraception offends some Catholics.

Beginning with World War II, the government has offered alternative service for conscientious objectors caught in the draft. But the end of conscription in 1973 did not end pacifists' objections. They say they can't abide paying for weapons and America's far-flung military establishment.

"I'm saying as an Anabaptist Christian, I cannot do this," Leatherman said. "It's the same thing as pulling the trigger."

As an alternative, conscientious objectors since 1971 have asked Congress to allow people opposed to war to opt out of war taxes. Instead, their taxes would go into a fund called the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund at the Treasury. The funds could be spent on any nonmilitary program.

Absent such a fund, Leatherman has been withholding a portion of his income taxes as a protest.

Tax-day stand

In 1971, for example, he sent the IRS two checks: $146 for the government, $228 to a charity.

When an IRS auditor showed up at his workplace at Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Leatherman offered to go to jail. The IRS took him to court instead, and in 1975 Leatherman lost, although the judge in his ruling paid respect to "the sincerity of the petitioner's convictions."

Starting in 1979, Leatherman at tax time has withheld a symbolic amount, such as $10.40. He inserts a note stating his reason for not paying in full. He also writes to the president and members of Congress.

A few months later he'll get a notice from the IRS saying he owes $10.55. He pays it, his protest costing him an extra 15 cents.

"They're getting me one way or the other," he said.

Leatherman, now 88, doesn't know if he'll see a tax day when his heart isn't pained by what he's paying for. But he'll continue to be a faithful resister, hopeful that others join the cause.

A forum on war-tax resistance will be held 3 p.m. Sunday at Lancaster Church of the Brethren, 1601 Sunset Ave. Speakers include Kelly Denton-Borhaug, religious studies professor at Moravian College.


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