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Valentine Byler vs. the IRS
"Pay Unto Caesar - The Amish & Social Security"

Many people think the Amish do not pay taxes. They do. But they have been exempted from paying Social Security. This story is little known to the general public today. It is full of drama, clashes with the government, issues of religious freedom, politics, and much more. For writing this 5-part series, I was privileged to have access to many original materials and personal letters.

(To read each section of the series individually, click on the following bookmarks, or read on for the entire series.)

Part One: The Dispute Begins Part Four: The Public Reaction
Part Two: The Amish vs. the IRS Part Five: The Amish "Fight Back"
Part Three: The Media Gets Involved

"Pay Unto Caesar"
The Amish & Social Security

Part One: The Dispute Begins

In 1935, a bill known as "The Social Security Act" passed Congress. Included in this act was "Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance," provided for those in industry and commerce, and extended to include farm operators in 1955. What was once a benefit had now become a law. The tax was to be reported at the rate of 3% of income up to an established limit.

While the Amish have no objection "paying unto Caesar what is Caesarís," they do have problems with commercial insurance. In a sense, insurance was seen as not trusting in God. Insurance plans were a worldly operation. Plus, the Amish view of separation of church and state normally meant not accepting money from government programs, especially something viewed as welfare. No one could deny that this program was one of paying money to the government and then receiving a benefit in return.

Perhaps most importantly, the care of the elderly is seen as the responsibility of the family and community, not the government. Whether it be additions built onto the main house where grandparents "retire," benefit sales to pay large medical bills, or the community effort of a barn-raising, the Amish truly try to "take care of their own."

An IRS press release outlined what happened immediately after the law went into effect...

In the fall of 1956, the IRS district director at Cleveland held meetings with Amish farmers and their church officials in an effort to solicit cooperation and voluntary compliance with the laws we have to administer. At these meetings, it was explained that the self-employment levy is a tax and that it would be the responsibility of IRS to enforce this tax.

As a result of these meetings and of letters sent to the individuals involved, the majority of Amish farmers in that general area voluntarily remitted the tax. With respect to those who refused, it became apparent that some did not wish to contravene the dictates of their church, but they also did not want "trouble" with IRS.

Thus, a portion of these farmers did not pay the tax, but did make the execution of liens possible by maintaining bank accounts which covered the tax.

If things had stopped here, our story would be over. But the above "arrangement" wasnít really satisfactory. Even the Amish recognized that allowing the government to take the money from their bank accounts wasnít much different from simply paying the money voluntarily. One Amishman was quoted in a November 1962 Readerís Digest article as saying, "Allowing our members to shift their interdependence on each other to dependence upon any outside source would inevitably lead to the breakup of our order."

A group of Amish presented a petition to Congress, with 14,000 signatures. The Amish questioned what possible harm they could do by not paying into Social Security. "We do not want to be burdensome, but we do not want to lose our birthright to everlasting glory, therefore we must do all we can to live our faith!" Nothing happened.

The IRS press release noted that...

The current problem stems from the "hard core" group of Old Order Amish farmers who closed out their bank accounts and made such levy action impossible. As a result, the IRS was forced to collect 130 delinquent taxpayer accounts from Amish farmers in the past two years.

Since the IRS was thwarted by the closing out of bank accounts, they next tried to attach checks for the amount owed to cooperatives that bought milk from the Amish. Most co-op officials refused to do this. The IRS saw only one alternative --- to seize property. In the case of the Amish, that meant cows and horses.

 

Part Two: The Amish vs. the IRS

While Social Security was called a tax and administered by the IRS beginning in the 1950ís, it was also clearly described as a form of old age and survivors insurance. In a 1961 IRS press release, the IRS recognized the Amish stance that "Social Security payments, in their opinion, are insurance premiums and not taxes. They, therefore, will not pay the Ďpremiumí nor accept any of the benefits."

As usually happens in these matters, it is one case that tends to catapult the situation into the public eye. That case would be the collection of payments from Valentine Byler, an Amish farmer living near New Wilmington, in western Pennsylvania. According to various articles, books, and sources, this is basically the series of events as they occurred...

By 1959, Valentine Byler owed four years of IRS taxes. The IRS added the interest owed and came up with a total of $308.96.

Byler explained that his religion forbid paying insurance. When he was told that this was a mere technicality and that it was indeed a tax, he apparently replied, "Doesnít the title say Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance?"

The IRS had tried to levy Valentineís bank account, but he had none. In 1960, after refusing a summons to appear in court, he was cited for contempt and brought to the Pittsburgh U.S. District Court. According to a Readerís Digest article, the judge "angrily demanded of the IRS agents, ĎDonít you have anything better to do than to take a peaceful man off his farm and drag him into court?í " The case was dismissed.

But the IRS was undaunted and, according to its own press release, this is what happened next on April 18, 1961...

Since Mr. Byler had no bank account against which to levy for the tax due, it was decided as a last desperate measure to resort to seizure and sale of personal property.

It was then determined that Mr. Byler had a total of six horses, so it was decided to seize three in order to satisfy the tax indebtedness. The three horses were sold May 1, 1961 at public auction for $460. Of this amount, $308.96 represented the tax due and $113.15 represented the expenses of the auction sale, including feed for the horses, leaving a surplus of $37.89 which was returned to the taxpayer.

The Byler case, like all others in the same category, presents an unpleasant and difficult task for the Internal Revenue Service... We have no other choice under the law.

Valentine was literally in his field with his team of horses doing some work prior to spring plowing when his horses were seized. With these same horses he would prepare his fields, do his planting, reap the harvest, and earn his living. The harnesses were also taken and included in the sale. According to a book describing the auction, The Amish in Court, no Amish came to bid on the horses and, due to a lack of bidders, they went for a good price, with the harnesses "thrown in" by the auctioneer. (Valentine borrowed his neighborís horses to finish his plowing.)

Immediately after the seizure and sale, the Pittsburgh IRS Chief of Collections responded he was unaware of the plowing situation. "Plowing never occurred to me. I live in an apartment." He was furthermore quoted as saying, "We donít ask people their race or religion when we administer the tax laws. People have no right to use their religion as an excuse not to pay taxes."

 

Part Three: The Media Gets Involved

While Social Security was called a tax and administered by the IRS beginning in the 1950ís, it was also clearly described as a form of old age and survivors insurance. In a 1961 IRS press release, the IRS recognized the Amish stance that "Social Security payments, in their opinion, are insurance premiums and not taxes. They, therefore, will not pay the Ďpremiumí nor accept any of the benefits."

The dispute came to the publicís attention after the IRS seized the horses of a Pennsylvania Amishman, Valentine Byler, to pay for the back Social Security taxes he owed and had refused to pay. With these same horses he would prepare his fields, do his planting, reap the harvest, and earn his living.

Since increased taxes and Social Security were becoming more of a concern among the general American public and the new Kennedy administration, it didnít take long for this story to hit the newspapers, and not just in the United States. A Public Information Officer for the IRS admitted that some Communist countries picked up the story to supposedly show the hypocritical attitude of the government and lack of true freedom in the United States.

The newspapers in America basically responded in favor of the Amishman. The Yonkers Herald Statesman noted...

Many of us resent central government insistence that it must impose on us all the costs of cradle-to-grave care as defined by bureaucrats. Yet we pay and pay and pay the taxes demanded because we have not yet been able to devise a sound way of escape.

The New York Herald Tribune, under the headline "Welfarism Gone Mad," stated in part...

The majesty and might of the Federal government have now been marshaled against Valentine Y. Byler. His horses --- which, since Amish rules forbid the use of tractors, represent his means of livelihood --- have been seized and sold at auction.

What kind of "welfare" is it that takes a farmerís horses away at spring plowing time in order to dragoon a whole community into a Ďbenefití scheme it neither needs nor wants, and which offends its deeply held religious scruples?

And from the Ledger-Star in Norfolk, Virginia came this response from William H. Fitzpatrick...

...When the last Amish buggy has disappeared from the dusty by-road, or has been sold like Valentine Bylerís three plow horses, it will mark more than the passing of a sect who were overwhelmed by time and change. It will mark also a milestone in the passing of freedom --- the freedom of people to live their lives undisturbed by their government so long as they lived disturbing no others. It was a freedom the country once thought important.

Another article, included in a letter sent to Valentine himself, showed how the case could touch a raw nerve with some, especially those unhappy with the new Kennedy Administration. It was the classic "little guy" against the privileged politicians of "big government." Theodore L. Humes in a publication called Human Events lashed out at just about everybody...

It is unlikely that the name Valentine Byler comes up between Bach fugues at the White House, or during the poolside dunkings of Bobby [Kennedy] and his pals; the Ford Foundation is unlikely to commission Marc Blitzstein to glorify him in opera as it has done for Sacco and Vanzetti; and neither Carl Sandburg nor Robert Frost will honor him in verse.

 

Part Four: The Public Reaction

While Social Security was called a tax and administered by the IRS beginning in the 1950ís, it was also clearly described as a form of old age and survivors insurance. In a 1961 IRS press release, the IRS recognized the Amish stance that "Social Security payments, in their opinion, are insurance premiums and not taxes. They, therefore, will not pay the Ďpremiumí nor accept any of the benefits."

The dispute came to the publicís attention after the IRS seized the horses of a Pennsylvania Amishman, Valentine Byler, to pay for the back Social Security taxes he owed and had refused to pay. With these same horses he would prepare his fields, do his planting, reap the harvest, and earn his living.

Between 1961 and 1963, Valentine received over 40 letters at his home, as people read about his plight. Some even sent money. These letters came from a wide range of Americans, and reflected social and political feelings of the time. Since none of these letters have ever been quoted or seen publicly to my knowledge, I want to include selections from a few of them in this issue...

From Dallas, Texas: May I congratulate you on having the intestinal fortitude to stand up for your beliefs. While I am aware that your action stemmed from a love of your religion rather than from defiance, I hope that your example may serve to point out to some of us just how far our benevolent Government will go to reach its goal of making dependents of us all. There seems to be no place for a person who asks merely to be left alone, and to provide for himself and his family

From New Wilmington, Pennsylvania: Please accept this as a small token ($5) toward the "resistance of the tyranny of the majority." I only wish that I could do more but, being a college student, my funds are limited.

From a minister in National City, California: We have always prided ourselves on having absolute separation of Church and State, absolute freedom in Religion, and genuine respect for every manís conscience here in these United States. I am sincerely sorry this has happened. I hope that the Lord leads you out of this situation well.

From Dickinson, Texas: Your courageous stand for your religious principles is to be commended. Your action in support of freedom is action in defense of the freedom of all of us.

From a doctor in Dallas, Texas: Your views and beliefs should be respected. Our great nation was built on principles and premises you adhere to. We as a country and a nation have come a long way from the old time virtues of simplicity, hard work, frugality, and self reliance.

From Elk City, Oklahoma: We have been guilty of letting little things seemingly creep in and have destroyed the quality of togetherness which you folk still possess. The idea that eventually we will all be taken care of by the government simply takes the initiative away from folks. To my knowledge you are the only people to have the admirable regard you have for no divorce, lack of juvenile delinquency, and caring for the aged. I think we could all learn a great deal from you folk.

From Amsterdam, New York: The only point of issue is that if there are no cases of old age need in your community, then you should not have to pay social security tax. But if there are, you should and must. It is simple as all that.

From Washington, DC: Many of us do not like the apparent over-reaching power of "Caesarís Might." Which will last longer --- trust in God or trust in money? The Amish are wise enough to answer this one. I dare say the Amish way, to trust in God and menís good will, will last longer than any monetary system.

 

Part Five: The Amish "Fight Back"

While Social Security was called a tax and administered by the IRS beginning in the 1950ís, it was also clearly described as a form of old age and survivors insurance. In a 1961 IRS press release, the IRS recognized the Amish stance that "Social Security payments, in their opinion, are insurance premiums and not taxes. They, therefore, will not pay the Ďpremiumí nor accept any of the benefits."

The dispute came to the publicís attention after the IRS seized the horses of a Pennsylvania Amishman, Valentine Byler, to pay for the back Social Security taxes he owed and had refused to pay. With these same horses he would prepare his fields, do his planting, reap the harvest, and earn his living.

The Amish held meetings with various officials after the incident. At a September, 1961 meeting with the IRS commissioner in Washington, Amish bishops cited several Bible passages, including I Timothy 5:8, which says, "But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel."

This printed petition submitted read in part...

We, as representatives of the Old Order Amish Mennonite Church, do herein express our deep appreciation, and with grateful hearts do we recount the favors and consideration accorded our forefathers in the past...

We believe in a supreme being and also the constitution of the USA, and we feel the Social Security Act and Old Age Survivors Insurance [OASI] is abridging and infringing to our religious freedom. We believe in giving alms in the church according to Christís teaching.

It has been our Christian concern from birth of our church group to supply those of our group who have a need, financial or otherwise... Our faith has always been sufficient to meet the needs as they come about, and we feel the present OASI is an infringement on our responsibilities; as a church we feel grieved that this OASI has come upon us...

We Bishops, representatives of the Old Order Churches of the USA are appealing to you to prayerfully consider and reconsider this favor. In God we trust.

In the end, it was decided the Amish would seek an exemption based on the First Amendment. The IRS would stop further seizures until the case was settled. The Senators present said they would try to get a bill passed in Congress. In essence, a "moratorium" was in effect.

The Amish seriously considered a court case, and even hired a lawyer, in a move uncharacteristic with their religious beliefs. As the court date approached, they wrestled with their convictions and decided to drop the case, opting instead to pursue a legislative exemption.

Further meetings and public reaction mainly in support of the Amish continued through the year 1964. And so it came to pass that in 1965, the Medicare bill was passed by Congress. As Wayne Fisher writes in The Amish in Court, "Tucked into the 138 page bill was a clause exempting the Old Order Amish, and any other religious sect who conscientiously objected to insurance, from paying Social Security payments, providing that sect had been in existence since December 31, 1950. After Senate approval in July, the signing of the bill by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 13, 1965, made it official and canceled tax accounts of some 15,000 Amish people amounting to nearly $250,000."

What then became of Valentine Byler, who had suddenly been thrust into the limelight? According to Wayne Fisher, "On May 3, 1965, Mr. Byler fell from a grain drill while working in his field and broke his neck. While he lay very sick in a hospital bed in the front room of his farmhouse, the news of the passage of the bill for which he had become a symbol, brought only a flicker of a smile from his face framed within his red beard."

POSTSCRIPT: Following the first publication of the above article, I received the following email from Val Byler...

Valentine Byler was my fraternal grandfather. I was actually named after him. I remember this story being mentioned when I was very young. I was born in 1963, a year and a half before he fell and broke his neck. He never let his disabilities keep him from ambition and trying his best. We built a shop for him where he made and sold wooden toys, bird houses and feeders, etc. until shortly before he passed away in 1998. I just wanted to say that I found the article very honorable, and appreciate the great account of that event. If I knew then (I moved away in 1981) what I know now, I would have written of it in his own words. But, he never talked about it.


Amish Country News Amish Series by Brad Igou (1999, 2005)

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