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Protesting war, a few dollars at a time

Ruth Paine of St. Petersburg pays her taxes - most of them, anyway. But there's one thing she won't willingly pay for: the U.S. military.

Published April 15, 2004

Ruth Hyde Paine
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
The government eventually got the money Ruth Hyde Paine owed, plus penalties and interest.

ST. PETERSBURG - On the eve of Tax Day 1982, Ruth Hyde Paine sat down at a typewriter and started a quiet fight with the federal government.

She struggled for the words.

She stewed over the consequences.

"This year, for the first time, I am withholding that portion of my income tax (40 percent), which I estimate goes toward military uses and war preparations," Paine wrote on April 14, 1982. "I have been wrestling with my conscience for a long time on this matter and finally felt I must resist taxation and tax expenditures when they are in conflict with my religious beliefs."

Along with the letter, Paine sent $1,434 to the IRS. She directed the rest of the money she owed, $956, to a Massachusetts peace fund.

"I was extremely nervous," Paine says. "I was staring down a lion. And I didn't really know what it could do."

More than 130-million people will file a federal income tax return this year, according to the IRS. And virtually all of them - at least 97 percent - pay the taxes they owe on time.

But while many filers scurry to complete their returns today to be free from the IRS's wrath, a small minority of antiwar activists have filed incomplete, inaccurate 1040s on purpose.

Known as war tax resisters, these protesters withhold income taxes that they say will be spent on U.S. military operations.

Resisters are not looking to shave a few dollars off their tax bill, Paine said. Instead, they redirect that portion of the money to a peace charity.

And in turn, they face harsh consequences. Jail time, hefty fines and property seizures are all possibilities.

Paine, 71, withheld about $4,000 from the federal government over the course of 10 years. In the end, the government got all of the money back, plus penalties and interest.

But Paine said she couldn't willingly give money to make war.

"I believe in taxation. I believe in government," said Paine, a Quaker and an antiwar activist whose watch keeps military time. "But I also believe in our right to religious freedom. And I believe in the fact that we value dissent as a patriotic thing."

From 1982 to 1992, Paine wrote a letter to the IRS each spring explaining how much she was withholding, where the money was going, and why. Sometimes, Paine held back close to $1,000. On other occasions, the amount was symbolic.

"I have been out walking, wondering what to say to you in this letter," Paine wrote one April, after diverting $62 to charity. "NUCLEAR WINTER. It is a specter that haunts us all. I must take some action to prevent such a disaster."

Each year when Paine sent a letter, she forwarded copies to her representatives in Congress. She wanted legislators to give her another option, a way for taxpayers to keep their money out of defense coffers.

They usually responded, offering sympathy but little else.

"I admire the courage and the strength of your conviction," wrote then-Sen. Lawton Chiles in August 1983. "We both share the strongest aversion to war, and the strongest desire to avoid it at all costs. We differ in our means, but not in our common goal."

No one knows how many federal income tax resisters like Paine exist. Gloria Sutton, a spokeswoman with the IRS, said the government does not keep statistics on the number of conscientious objectors. Even Ruth Benn, a tax resister who has written a how-to book on the matter, isn't sure how many there are like her.

Benn, the coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, said up to 10,000 people nationwide might take part in some type of tax protest. That estimate, however, includes people who intentionally make less money to avoid paying any federal income tax.

"It's hard for us to survey," said Benn, 51, who is based in Brooklyn, N.Y. "There are so many people out there that we think are resisting that we just don't know about."

Paine knows only one other Tampa Bay area person who has withheld income taxes because of moral objections.

Mary Ann C. Holtz, a St. Petersburg woman who has voiced her antiwar opinions in the editorial pages of the St. Petersburg Times, donated $75 worth of federal taxes last year to a nonprofit group in protest of military operations in Iraq.

Holtz declined to comment for this report, but her letter to the federal government said she did not want her money going toward agencies that inflict violence. Her April 6, 2003, letter was posted on the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee Web site,

"With each escalation of violence and the predictable counterviolence, it becomes increasingly evident that no amount of military preparedness can truly make our country . . . secure," Holtz wrote regarding her 2002 Form 1040. "In fact, the only real way to (sustain) security is through the long and difficult process of peacemaking."

In Paine's case, in the end the IRS levied her bank accounts to get the tax money. Just about a year after she withheld her first $956, for example, tax collectors removed $1,067 from her savings account. The extra money covered penalties and interest.

The cycle repeated every year.

"The tax laws are in place, and just because you don't agree with how tax money is spent is no excuse not to timely file and accurately pay your income tax," said Alycyn Culbertson, a St. Petersburg spokeswoman with the IRS's criminal investigation branch. "Just because an individual "doesn't mind paying taxes, but refuses to do so' is not an excuse. The tax law is the tax law."

Today, Paine's dining room table in her southeast St. Petersburg home is more of a kiosk for protest than a place to eat, with pamphlets, fliers and books explaining tax resistance.

One leaflet from a group called the War Resisters League includes a quote from Wally Nelson, a resistance pioneer of sorts, who spent 33 months in prison after refusing to serve during World War II. He "waged peace" until he died in 2002.

"What would you do if someone came to your door with a cup in hand asking for a contribution . . . to help buy guns and kill a group of people they didn't like?" Nelson said.

Benn, the resistance coordinator, puts Nelson's message into a more practical scenario.

"If we had an actual war tax, if the Bush administration said to everybody that they had to buy this $10 stamp, what do you think would happen?" Benn said. "You would see huge resistance."

Even now, Paine, who became a footnote to history because she had befriended Lee Harvey Oswald's wife before the Kennedy assassination, refuses to pay a 3 percent federal excise tax on her telephone service. Historically levied during wartime, the tax was made permanent in 1990. In 2002, it produced $5.8-billion for the government.

And, in her own way, Paine tries to make sure her resistance counts as much as possible.

She keeps two phones.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 771-4303 or

[Last modified April 14, 2004, 12:09:10]

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