United States v. Lee

Decision Date23 February 1982
Docket NumberNo. 80-767,80-767
Citation102 S.Ct. 1051,455 U.S. 252,71 L.Ed.2d 127
PartiesUNITED STATES, Appellant v. Edwin D. LEE
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Appellee, a farmer and carpenter, is a member of the Old Order Amish, who believe that there is a religiously based obligation to provide for their fellow members the kind of assistance contemplated by the social security system. During certain years when he employed other Amish to work on his farm and in his carpentry shop, appellee failed to withhold social security taxes from his employees or to pay the employer's share of such taxes because he believed that payment of the taxes and receipt of benefits would violate the Amish faith. After the Internal Revenue Service assessed him for the unpaid taxes, appellee paid a certain amount and then sued in Federal District Court for a refund, claiming that imposition of the taxes violated his First Amendment free exercise of religion rights and those of his employees. The District Court held the statutes requiring appellee to pay social security taxes unconstitutional as applied, basing its holding on both 26 U.S.C. § 1402(g), which exempts from social security taxes, on religious grounds, self-employed Amish and others, and the First Amendment.

Held:

1. The exemption provided by § 1402(g), being available only to self-employed individuals, does not apply to employers or employees, and hence appellee and his employees are not within its provisions. P. 256.

2. The imposition of social security taxes is not unconstitutional as applied to such persons as appellee who object on religious grounds to receipt of public insurance benefits and to payment of taxes to support public insurance funds. Pp. 256-261.

(a) While there is a conflict between the Amish faith and the obligations imposed by the social security system, not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional. The state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest. Pp. 256-258.

(b) Widespread individual voluntary coverage under social security would undermine the soundness of the social security system, and would make such system almost a contradiction in terms and difficult, if not impossible, to administer. Pp. 258-259. (c) It would be difficult to accommodate the social security system with myriad exceptions flowing from a wide variety of religious beliefs such as the Amish. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15, distinguished. There is no principled way for purposes of this case to distinguish between general taxes and those imposed under the Social Security Act. The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge it because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief. Because the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such a high order, religious belief in conflict with the payment of taxes affords no basis for resisting the tax. Pp. 259-260.

(d) Congress in § 1402(g) has accommodated, to the extent compatible with a comprehensive national program, the practices of those who believe it a violation of their faith to participate in the social security system. When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes that are binding on others in that activity. Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees. The tax imposed on employers to support the social security system must be uniformly applicable to all, except as Congress explicitly provides otherwise. Pp. 260-261.

497 F.Supp. 180, reversed and remanded.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D. C., for appellant.

Francis X. Caiazza, New Castle, Pa., for appellee.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We noted probable jurisdiction to determine whether imposition of social security taxes is unconstitutional as applied to persons who object on religious grounds to receipt of public insurance benefits and to payment of taxes to support public insurance funds. 450 U.S. 993, 101 S.Ct. 1693, 68 L.Ed.2d 192 (1981). The District Court, 497 F.Supp. 180, concluded that the Free Exercise Clause prohibits forced payment of social security taxes when payment of taxes and receipt of benefits violate the taxpayer's religion. We reverse.

I

Appellee, a member of the Old Order Amish, is a farmer and carpenter. From 1970 to 1977, appellee employed several other Amish to work on his farm and in his carpentry shop. He failed to file the quarterly social security tax returns required of employers, withhold social security tax from his employees, or pay the employer's share of social security taxes.1

In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service assessed appellee in excess of $27,000 for unpaid employment taxes; he paid $91— the amount owed for the first quarter of 1973—and then sued in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania for a refund, claiming that imposition of the social security taxes violated his First Amendment free exercise rights and those of his Amish employees.2

The District Court held the statutes requiring appellee to pay social security and unemployment insurance taxes unconstitutional as applied. 497 F.Supp. 180 (1980). The court noted that the Amish believe it sinful not to provide for their own elderly and needy and therefore are religiously opposed to the national social security system.3 The court also accepted appellee's contention that the Amish religion not only prohibits the acceptance of social security benefits, but also bars all contributions by Amish to the social security system. The District Court observed that in light of their beliefs, Congress has accommodated self-employed Amish and self-employed members of other religious groups with similar beliefs by providing exemptions from social security taxes. 26 U.S.C. § 1402(g).4 The court's holding was based on both the exemption statute for the self-employed and the First Amendment; appellee and others "who fall within the carefully circumscribed definition provided in 1402(g) are relieved from paying the employer's share of [social security taxes] as it is an unconstitutional infringement upon the free exercise of their religion." 5 497 F.Supp., at 184.

Direct appeal from the judgment of the District Court was taken pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1252.

II

The exemption provided by § 1402(g) is available only to self-employed individuals and does not apply to employers or employees. Consequently, appellee and his employees are not within the express provisions of § 1402(g). Thus any exemption from payment of the employer's share of social security taxes must come from a constitutionally required exemption.

A.

The preliminary inquiry in determining the existence of a constitutionally required exemption is whether the payment of social security taxes and the receipt of benefits interferes with the free exercise rights of the Amish. The Amish believe that there is a religiously based obligation to provide for their fellow members the kind of assistance contemplated by the social security system. Although the Government does not challenge the sincerity of this belief, the Government does contend that payment of social security taxes will not threaten the integrity of the Amish religious belief or observance. It is not within "the judicial function and judicial competence," however, to determine whether appellee or the Government has the proper interpretation of the Amish faith; "[c]ourts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation." Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707, 716, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 1431, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981).6 We therefore accept appellee's contention that both payment and receipt of social security benefits is forbidden by the Amish faith. Because the payment of the taxes or receipt of benefits violates Amish religious beliefs, compulsory participation in the social security system interferes with their free exercise rights.

The conclusion that there is a conflict between the Amish faith and the obligations imposed by the social security system is only the beginning, however, and not the end of the inquiry. Not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional. See, e.g., Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 64 S.Ct. 438, 88 L.Ed. 645 (1944); Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 25 L.Ed. 244 (1879). The state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental inter- est. Thomas, supra; Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972); Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437, 91 S.Ct. 828, 28 L.Ed.2d 168 (1971); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963).

B

Because the social security system is nationwide, the governmental interest is apparent. The social security system in the United States serves the public interest by providing a comprehensive insurance system with a variety of benefits available to all participants, with costs shared by employers and employees.7 The social security system is by far the largest domestic governmental program in the United States today, distributing approximately $11 billion monthly to 36 million Americans.8 The design of the system requires support by mandatory contributions from covered employers and employees. This mandatory participation is indispensable to the fiscal vitality of the social security system. "[W]idespread individual voluntary coverage under social security . . . would undermine the soundness of the social security program." S.Rep.No. 404, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 1, p. 116 (1965), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News (1965), pp. 1943, 2056. Moreover, a...

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