What can you tell me about the federal income tax?

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“What can you tell me about the federal income tax?” Ensign, Jan. 1976, 68–69

A friend recently told me that members of the Church should resist paying income taxes because the federal income tax is unconstitutional. What can you tell me about this?

Robert F. Bohn, instructor of family economics and home management, Brigham Young University Since the original United States Constitution does not authorize the federal government to levy direct taxes (i.e., income taxes), a few extremists have refused to pay their federal income taxes, citing the Church’s belief in the inspired source of the Constitution as justification. (D&C 101:80.) To understand why the Church lends no support to those refusing to pay their taxes, let us first review the origins of taxation in America.

In the early beginnings of the United States, when the colonies were under the governmental control of Great Britain, the colonists protested the British taxation without representation as an infringement upon their liberties. Accordingly, the writers of the Constitution prohibited direct taxes by the federal government. Therefore, federal taxes during George Washington’s administration were imposed primarily on distilled spirits, tobacco and snuff, refined sugar, carriages, property sold at auction, bonds, and various legal documents. During the early history of the United States, the federal tax revenues were mainly obtained from customs and excise taxes.

It was not until the tremendous financial pressures caused by the Civil War (1861) that the Congress adopted the first of a series of revenue laws—among them, our first income tax. Due to the continued rise of our public debt during the war between the North and South, President Lincoln signed into law in July 1862 the most sweeping revenue-producing measure in the nation’s history to that time. The new law provided for progressive taxation, for levies on incomes, and for tax withholding. In addition to a variety of new taxes, the law also provided for the beginning of a permanent tax collecting agency—the forerunner of the present Internal Revenue Service.

The constitutional right of the federal government to levy direct taxes on the people was challenged many times in our nation’s history, and the courts ruled that direct taxes were unconstitutional. A classic example was in the 1890s when Congress passed a tariff law providing for a small income tax. It was challenged in our federal courts and was twice brought before the Supreme Court. The second time, in 1895, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, essentially saying that any income tax was direct and therefore unconstitutional; consequently, the Income Tax Division in the office of Internal Revenue was dissolved.

When William H. Taft became President in 1909, a new era was beginning and the United States needed more financial resources. Huge numbers of people were moving to the cities. As a result of the need for revenue and continuing clamor for tax reform, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was proposed to give Congress the power to tax the people directly. This amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress in 1909, but it was not ratified by three-fourths of the states until February, 1913. The 16th Amendment provides that:

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

It is because of the 16th Amendment that the United States Internal Revenue Service has the constitutional right to collect federal income taxes. While many dozens of court cases have challenged the 16th Amendment, all have failed.

A fundamental and divine principle of the Constitution is that the federal government of the United States will be governed by and for the people it serves. Accordingly, an integral part of the inspired document’s ingenuity lies within its specific procedure to amend itself as the country expands and becomes more complex. When an amendment is properly ratified, it “shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution.” (U.S. Constitution, Article 5.)

Until the people of the United States repeal the 16th Amendment, the levying of federal income taxes is lawful and constitutional. Thus, Latter-day: Saints are committed to the payment of their legal share of the taxes as confirmed by the 12th Article of Faith: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Because of the history just reviewed, some extremists refuse to pay their income taxes and eventually are placed in jail for their actions. Nevertheless, the Church authorities lend no support to these extremists, as was indicated by President Harold B. Lee at the October 1972 general conference when he instructed:

“Now there is another danger that confronts us. There seem to be those among us who are as wolves among the flock, trying to lead some who are weak and unwary among Church members, according to reports that have reached us, who are taking the law into their own hands by refusing to pay their income tax because they have some political disagreement with constituted authorities.” (Ensign, January 1973, p. 106.)

In the April 1973 Priesthood Bulletin the Church reaffirmed its position against those “who claim Church membership … making it appear as though their opposition to Federal tax laws is Church sponsored” by referring to President Lee’s aforementioned conference admonition and concluded with the following instructions to Church leaders:

“We ask priesthood leaders to be on guard against such persons. They are not to be invited to speak in priesthood or sacrament meetings, firesides, or other Church meetings in attempting to spread their propaganda. Priesthood leaders should also teach the necessity of abiding the law according to the revelations.

“The Lord has said:

“‘Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land.

“‘Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet.’” (D&C 58:21–22.)