United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982)

When a person’s religious beliefs are at odds with actions of their government, and the person is required to support the government through taxes, there may be conflict. In deciding these conflicts, courts must weigh the government’s interest in the tax program against the burden on the individual’s rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Mr. Edwin Lee was a member of the Old Order Amish who owned a farming and carpentry business. Mr. Lee, and other members of the Old Order Amish, believed it is a sin to participate in a system of governmental insurance like social security. Because of that belief, Mr. Lee did not pay social security and employment taxes for himself or his employees. The IRS assessed back taxes against Mr. Lee, and Mr. Lee sued the IRS. Mr. Lee based his suit on the free exercise clause and a provision in the tax code that allowed self-employed Amish an exemption from social security taxes under certain conditions.

The Supreme Court decided this case using the same analysis it had used in Wisconsin v. Yoder, when it ruled that Wisconsin’s compulsory education laws unconstitutionally interfered with the free exercise rights of parents of Amish children. However, unlike in Wisconsin, in this case the Court did not require an accommodation on the part of the government. In a unanimous opinion, the Court ruled that there was no constitutional requirement for an exemption from social security taxes based on the free exercise clause. It also ruled that the existing statutory exemption only applied to the self-employed, not employers like Mr. Lee.

Without conducting an analysis of his religious beliefs, the Court accepted as a fact that forcing Mr. Lee to pay social security taxes interfered with his free exercise of religion. This followed the practice that the Court had previously articulated in Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div. Then the Court analyzed the compulsory nature of the social security system. It determined that the government’s interest in having a compulsory social security system was ‘‘very high.’’ It likened social security taxes to income taxes and determined that the tax system could not function with different religious denominations challenging each use of taxes that violated their beliefs. A concurring opinion noted that it would not be difficult to provide the exemption, because it already existed in the tax code for selfemployed Amish, but the remainder of the Court believed that providing exemptions on the basis of religious beliefs could undermine the social security system. Therefore, the constitution did not require an exemption. Later, in Employment Div. Dep’t of Human Res. of Or. v. Smith, the Court ruled that there would be no constitutionally required exemption from generally applicable laws on the basis of the free exercise clause.

Although there was no constitutionally required exemption from social security taxes based on the free exercise clause, Congress was still free to expand the existing statutory exemptions. In 1988, Congress passed a law that provided the exemption to Amish employers and employees.

JAMES G. HARWOOD

References and Further Reading

  • Harwood, James G., Religiously-Based Social Security Exemptions: Who Is Eligible, How Did They Develop, and Are the Exemptions Consistent with the Religion Clauses and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)? Akron Tax Journal 17 (2002): 1: 1–22.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)
  • Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981)
  • Employment Div. Dep’t of Human Res. of Or. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990)

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