'War tax' resisters square off against the IRS

This is a soft-spoken, cautious band of outlaws. Many of them hold strong religious convictions. To say the least, they do not present an immediate threat to the financial ledgers of defense industries. In fact, many of the 34 southern California war-tax resisters don't actually succeed in refusing to pay federal income taxes.

But they have managed to build up a $41,000 War Tax Alternative Fund. They have just given away the interest on this would-be tax money to charities - for the seventh time since the fund was opened - in a modest, soft-spoken press conference.

These war-tax resisters are part of a very loose but steadfast network of people around the country who balk at paying taxes that support military ventures.

Although their numbers peaked during the last years of the Vietnam war, they began growing again during the Carter administration and swelled further when President Reagan took office. According to activists in war-tax resistance, the most striking recent development is the growing number of religious people and clergy resisting taxes - people who, as one observer puts it, ''have never done anything illegal in their lives.''

For conscience's sake, these tax dissenters play a polite, careful game of cat and mouse with the Internal Revenue Service that is getting harder for the pacifist mice to win.

The Southern California Tax Resistance was formed in 1979 when the Rev. Philip Zwerling of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles gave the sermon ''Ain't gonna pay for war no more.''

He didn't. A tall, strapping fellow with a thick black beard, he actually has not paid his telephone excise tax for 11 years, since this tax was levied specifically to finance the Vietnam war effort. And since 52 percent of federal taxes, according to Mr. Zwerling, support past, present, or future war spending, he has disdained that tax, too, for five years running.

Some of his congregation, and others outside it, joined him in this civil disobedience.

But the IRS has not been altogether foiled.

Last year, the tax collectors put a lien on his property. When he still refused to ante up, they put a lien on his church to garnish his wages. The congregation voted to support their pastor and not to withhold his salary. Finally, the IRS had the employer of Mr. Zwerling's wife garnish her wages, since they file a joint tax return, until the agency had collected back taxes, interest, and penalties in full.

In cases like this, members of the War Tax Alternative Fund can simply withdraw their money. Otherwise the resisters like Mr. Zwerling would have paid twice. While Zwerling and his wife kept some money in the fund, six former tax resisters have withdrawn altogether after the IRS managed to collect from them.

Ed Hedemann of the War Resisters League in New York has fared better. For 12 years he has been a total abstainer from federal taxpaying. Each year he invests his estimated federal taxes to the benefit of a charity.

Mr. Hedemann, who edits a book the league puts out on tax resisting, does not own the kind of property that can be seized. Although the IRS, he says, has tried to find a bank account in his name, he saves his money in alternative ways. His first five years of tax resisting, in fact, have passed the statute of limitations, so are uncollectable.

No one has a clear count of how many war-tax resisters there are. Mr. Hedemann estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 people refuse to pay at least some of their federal taxes to avoid supporting war spending.

Others, such as the Center for Law and Pacifism in Colorado Springs, can only note that they have a mailing list of 3,000, and most of those on their mailing list are presumed to be tax resisters. Yet these are mostly people with religious affiliation, and tax resisters who oppose war for political reasons are supposed to be at least as numerous, if not more.

The IRS itself only tallies tax resisters and evaders according to their methods, not their convictions.

Some resisters succeed in simply drawing a line through a legal exemption on the tax return and writing in ''war tax credit'' along with a letter of explanation, according to Hedemann.

''A surprising number get through,'' he says, although IRS policy does not honor war-tax credits.

To the IRS, this qualifies as a ''frivolous'' tax return, and is liable for a

How not to pay taxes is a bureaucratic puzzle for many resisters, since most paychecks arrive with the taxes already extracted.

The most common method is to claim the full 14 allowances on the W-4 form that an employee gives to his employers. This means most of a wage-earner's would-be taxes will not be withheld by his company.

Then, even though the war-tax resister will turn in an honest tax return as a matter of principle, he will have the tax money in his possession so he can refuse to pay either all or part of it.

In 1848, Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax levied in support of the war with Mexico.

The following day an anonymous donor paid his tax for him, setting Thoreau free.

Thoreau's act of disobedience did not change American foreign policy but it became historic.

''You never know when one person will have an enormous effect,'' Hedemann comments. ''That's why we don't worry too much about the small numbers.''

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