United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252; 102 S. Ct. 1051; 71 L. Ed. 2d 127 (1982)

United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252; 102 S. Ct. 1051; 71 L. Ed. 2d 127 (1982)

Facts—Lee, a member of the Old Order Amish, is a farmer and carpenter who, between 1970 and 1977, employed other Amish. He paid no Social Security taxes and filed no Social Security tax returns. The Internal Revenue Service assessed Lee in excess of $27,000, of which he only paid $91.00, and then sued for a refund claiming, inter alia, that the imposition of the Social Security tax violated his First Amendment Free Exercise Rights and those of his Amish employees. Congress had previously accommodated self-employed Amish and self-employed members of other religious groups with similar beliefs by providing exemptions from Social Security taxes. The District Court agreed with Lee.

Question—Do the Social Security taxes interfere with the Free Exercise Rights of the Amish?


ReasonsC.J. Burger (9–0). “Not all burdens on religion are unconstitutional. Because the Social Security System is nationwide, the governmental interest is apparent. 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. The government’s interest . . . to the Social Security System is very high. The difficulty in attempting to accommodate religious beliefs in the area of taxation is that ‘we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference.’ To maintain an organized society that guarantees religious freedom to a great variety of faiths requires that some religious practices yield to the common good. The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief. 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 which are binding on others in that activity.”

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