Citing Beliefs, A Quaker Takes On Irs Priscilla Adams Of Willingboro Refuses To Pay Federal Income Tax Because She Doesn't Want Her Money Helping The Military.

Posted: February 28, 2000

Paying federal taxes is not a matter of preference. On this, Priscilla Lippincott Adams and the Internal Revenue Service agree.

But that is where the similarities end and the bundles of late-payment notices, hours of litigation in federal courts, and disputes over tens of thousands of dollars begin.

Adams, a Quaker from Willingboro, Burlington County, has never voluntarily paid a cent in federal income tax. A conscientious war objector, the 47-year-old mother of two girls refuses to allow her tax dollars to be used for the military.

To Adams, refusing to pay her federal income tax because it might be used for military purposes is a matter of conscience, protected by the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

To the IRS, her action is against the law.

"I couldn't live with myself," Adams said about contributing to a budget that supports the military. "I couldn't hand over that money and still feel that I was doing what was right."

Adams, who began acting as a war-tax resister in 1974, took the commissioner of the federal agency to court in 1996, contending that the 1993 law protected her as a conscientious objector and that the government must prove its need to intervene.

In 1998, a federal tax court judge ruled that uniform mandatory participation in the federal income tax system, irrespective of religious belief, was a compelling government interest, and that Adams was expected to pay her taxes.

Last month, the Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal of the decision and the case of a New England couple with similar claims.

Although her legal options have run out, Adams has become a national symbol among Quakers and other pacifists campaigning for a Peace Tax Fund, which would allow people to funnel their tax money into a special fund not tapped for military spending.

Adams is backed by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, which is encouraging its 105 congregations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland to write letters urging members of Congress to support the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.).

Adams also was asked to speak at a national Quaker youth conference at the William Penn House in Washington as well as at local meetings and a Unitarian church in Germantown.

Versions of the bill have been introduced several times in the last 30 years, but votes are hard to come by because "it isn't the kind of issue that grabs everybody," said Marian Franz, director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.

This tactic is likely to be more successful than taking the IRS to court, said Ted Marasciulo, a tax lawyer with Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay in Philadelphia.

"The remedy here is to contact your congressman, work within the system, run for office yourself," he said. "It's a legislative thing."

Marasciulo, who has tried several similar cases, said going to court is likely to be unsuccessful.

"On the civil side it's real clear: When you try these cases, you lose every time," he said.

It's difficult to explain to outsiders - including judges and legislators - why only a fraction of Quakers consider themselves war-tax resisters, Adams said. About 8,000 to 10,000 Americans are war-tax resisters, according to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.

An explanation is rooted in the religion's fundamental belief that God exists within each person and speaks to and through each individual in a unique way, said Adams, whose Quaker husband, Bruce LeNeal Adams, pays federal income taxes every year.

The call to be a war-tax resister is a frightening one to Quakers who worry about the economic consequences for their families if they refuse to pay taxes or choose to live below the taxable income level to avoid the issue altogether.

It is possible to be a "devout coward," said Phil Anthony, coordinator for the Salem, N.J., Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

"I haven't felt a call to go that way, and frankly I'm scared to do it," Anthony said.

Adams' call did not come all at once. It is a "continuing revelation" that began as she was preparing for a career in social work, strengthened as she learned more about the devastating effects of modern warfare, and crystallized with the death of her infant daughter, Ravenna, in 1993.

With the loss of a child, Adams said, she gained empathy for the parents and communities who have lost soldiers and civilians to war.

For several years, Adams purposely lived below the taxable income rate, a common tactic for war-tax resisters. She eventually started filing tax forms and lending the amount of money she owed the government to service organizations.

"Our war-tax resistance is a way of making our actions consistent with our beliefs," said Adams, who said she does not plan to pay any of the taxes or penalties the agency is trying to collect.

It is unclear how much Adams owes because she said she usually receives notices that indicate how much she owes for individual years, not in total and not including all late fees and penalties.

In her federal tax court case, however, documents show that the amounts owed for the years 1988-89 and 1992-94 add up to $15,598 as of March 3, 1998. The official letters, copies of handwritten tax returns and court documents reside - some neatly bundled by year in plastic bags and others stacked indiscriminately in a cardboard box - in a hall closet in her Willingboro home.

One final notice from the IRS to Adams, dated July 13, 1997, reads: "Our records indicate you haven't paid the amount you owe. The law requires that you pay your tax at the time you file your return. This is a formal notice of our intent to levy [take] your paycheck, bank account, auto, or other property if we don't receive your payment in full."

Adams said the IRS has approached her employer, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, where she has worked since 1985 on peace and justice issues, and tried to garnish her wages, but the organization has a policy of not voluntarily relinquishing wages of conscientious objectors.

Years ago, the IRS was successful in seizing a paycheck from a previous employer and some money from a bank account, Adams said.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting places about half of the money that the IRS requires it to withhold for Adams as an employee into a bank account that is periodically tapped by the IRS, Adams said.

It is unusual for the federal agency to allow an employer to resist an order to garnish an employee's wages for tax reasons, Marasciulo said.

"Normally, an employer could not pick or choose whether to comply with an order to garnish the wages," he said.

Michael Livingston, a tax law professor at Rutgers University's Camden campus, said image might have something to do with Adams' ability to escape criminal prosecution by the IRS.

"The question of how to respond to these things is a very tricky one for the IRS," he said. "It certainly doesn't look very good for the IRS to go after these people [Quakers]."

Donna Hargrave, an IRS spokeswoman, said tax returns for every individual or business were approached the same way, regardless of the reasons for nonpayment that people sometimes spell out in writing.

IRS representatives follow a series of steps that begin with initial contact (often a phone call) and can end with liens on property, levies on bank accounts, or criminal prosecution, Hargrave said.

Hargrave would not comment specifically on Adams' case.

To prosecute Adams criminally, the IRS would have to prove that she had a "guilty mind" and was intentionally and knowingly breaking the law, Marasciulo said.

"A good-faith belief can keep you from being prosecuted" criminally, he said.

The ability to prove this criminal intent, public relations concerns, and the financial cost of a criminal trial may discourage the IRS from bringing criminal charges against Adams, Marasciulo said.

War-tax resisters also are pinning hopes on a Connecticut woman, Rosa Packard, whose attorneys are preparing to file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. Packard calculated her taxes and placed the money in an escrow account, saying the government would have access to it when she could be certain the money would not be used for military purposes. Packard's case, argued by the same Philadelphia law firm that represented Adams, focuses on the penalties levied against her.

Packard contends that setting up the escrow account is a legal option for conscientious objectors, not an act of civil disobedience.

"It's like the women's movement or the abolitionist slavery movement," she said. "It's a human-rights issue."

Lauren Mayk's e-mail address is lmayk@phillynews.com

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