Divided COA: Man can't use RFRA to avoid taxes

January 13, 2017

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a Marion County man cannot avoid paying income taxes using a religious freedom defense, with the majority writing that the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows for the collection of taxes in the furtherance of a compelling government interest.

In 2013, Rodney Tyms-Bey was notified that the Indiana Department of Revenue had determined that he had falsely reported his income and eligible tax deductions in 2012 and owed the state $1,042.82. He responded with paperwork claiming that he was a “sovereign citizen” and also declaring himself an estate and, thus, did not subsequently amend his tax return or pay the outstanding balance.

The following year, Tyms-Bey was charged with three counts of felony tax evasion, each as Class D felonies, but on July 1, 2015, the date RFRA took effect, he filed a notice of defense of religious freedom. The state moved to strike the defense and at a related hearing, Tyms-Bey refused to identify what religious practice was burdened by the state’s actions. Instead, he said he was entitled to present his case to a jury.

The Marion Superior Court granted the motion to strike and Tyms-Bey appealed in Rodney Tyms-Bey v. State of Indiana, 49A05-1603-CR-439. But a divided Indiana Court of Appeals rejected Tyms-Bey’s RFRA argument Friday, with Judge John Baker writing for the majority that the defendant could never raise a successful RFRA defense.

Baker and Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik, who concurred with the majority, based their opinion on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 258-61 (1982), which held that “(b)ecause 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.”

Baker noted that a statutory exception to RFRA allows the government to substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion if the burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of doing so.

“We adopt the analysis of the Lee Court and hold as a matter of law that, in the context of Indiana’s RFRA, there is a compelling governmental interest in collecting income tax revenue,” Baker wrote. “There are no facts that Tyms-Bey could proffer with respect to his exercise of religion that would not be overcome by the State’s compelling interest and the means used by the State in furthering that interest.”

But Judge Edward Najam, writing in a dissenting opinion that was nearly twice as long as the majority’s, wrote that although “Tyms-Bey’s alleged RFRA defense may ultimately not succeed, he is entitled to his day in court.”

“(I)n enacting Indiana’s RFRA, our legislature explicitly reserved to itself, and withheld from our judiciary, the right to declare categorical exemptions from RFRA’s application,” Najam wrote. “The majority’s holding disregards that command and categorically removes tax-based actions from RFRA’s application.”

Rather than Lee, Najam wrote that Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751, 2761-62 (2014) is a better reflection of the Indiana Legislature’s intent when enacting RFRA.

“And this is significant here because, as Burwell explains, RFRA demands a fact-sensitive, ‘particularized’ assessment of the claimed religious exemption, while Lee does not,” he said.



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