Columnists > Voices

Code of silence

Why won't the IRS answer a basic question about tax law?

Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003

I STILL HAVE DOUBTS WHETHER THE NAME OF VERNICE B. Kuglin, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., will someday leap off the pages of America's history books along with those of Patrick Henry, Nathan Hale, and Rosa Parks. I do know that Ms. Kuglin must be a woman of some personal courage.

Ms. Kuglin, a 58-year-old pilot for FedEx, made news a few days ago when a federal court jury found her not guilty on six charges of tax evasion and willful failure to file federal tax returns. During her testimony, Ms. Kuglin said that over the last eight years she had sent numerous letters to the Internal Revenue Service requesting that the agency tell her specifically which law in the federal code requires her to pay individual taxes.

To this day, she says, she has not received an answer to that simple question. It's not, mind you, that she has received an answer she considers unsatisfactory or unclear. It's that she hasn't received an answer of any kind.

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The reason I still have doubts about Ms. Kuglin's durability as a true American heroine has to do with the methods she used to make her point. (Among other things, she claimed 99 exemptions on her W-4 form.) But after watching her case-and those of other tax protesters-for the last several months, I can't help thinking they have something of an argument. And I think the IRS continues to be extraordinarily dim-headed in its response on at least two important fronts.

First, if indeed the obligation of every U.S. citizen to pay federal taxes is legitimately codified, then it shouldn't be all that difficult for the IRS to demonstrate for a layman like Ms. Kuglin just exactly how those laws apply. For some years, some pretty smart people have put together a pretty persuasive argument that the tax laws are a sham, that they have been cobbled together in an extraconstitutional manner allowing Uncle Sam to collect huge sums of money without a clear basis in law.

If these folks are wrong, more and more taxpayers are asking, why should it be so hard for the IRS and the federal government to prove the case? Why, when a minister like Gene Chapman camps out for a "fast to the death" on the steps of an IRS building, demanding an answer to the question, "Where is my tax liability in the law?"-why doesn't the IRS just provide a simple and transparent answer?

Indeed, I have actually been skeptical in the other direction. I have regularly dismissed the so-called tax-protest movement as a group of crackpots who want so badly to prove the federal government wrong that they concoct harebrained theories that can't possibly hold water. But the longer the feds and the IRS stonewall, the less skeptical I get.

Second, why must the federal government be so heavy-handed in its response to a few of the more outspoken tax protesters? Protester Irwin Schiff finds himself in federal court in Nevada this week, fighting a possible six-month jail sentence for continuing to sell his book, The Federal Mafia. The government contends that he is engaged in commercial enterprise to encourage citizens to break the law-which means that every time Mr. Schiff does anything to sell another book, he finds himself in contempt of court.

Protester Larken Rose, meanwhile, says he isn't even trying to sell anything; without advocating any particular action, he just tells people through lectures and literature what he thinks the law really says-and for that, he claims, he has had his office and home ransacked by IRS agents.

WORLD and its board and management are not tax protesters. We take seriously Christ's command to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." And we understand that in a secular society, that may often mean we end up paying taxes even for causes that we find repugnant to our consciences.

At the same time, it's altogether right for citizens in a free society to call on Caesar to tell us the truth about our obligations, and to do so in a civil manner.

In Memphis a couple of weeks ago, after the jury that had exonerated Ms. Kuglin had been dismissed, the U.S. attorney who had unsuccessfully prosecuted the case asked the presiding judge to order the defendant to file her forms, pay her taxes, and "obey the law." The judge responded discreetly by noting that such a response was outside his duties.

If the judge was simply saying, "Make your law clear, sir, and maybe the lady will obey," I think he had a pretty good point.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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