United States v. Lee

Facts of the Case

Appellee, a self-employed farmer and carpenter who was a member of the Old Order Amish religion, sued in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania for a refund of the social security taxes paid by him pursuant to 26 USCS 3101 et seq. on account of his employment of other members of that religion on his farm and in his carpentry shop. Appellee claimed that the imposition of the taxes violated his First Amendment free exercise rights and those of his employees, because members of the Old Order Amish religion believed that there was a religiously based obligation to provide for their fellow members the kind of assistance contemplated by the social security system, and that therefore their religion prohibited acceptance of social security benefits and payment of social security taxes. The District Court held the statutes requiring the claimant to pay social security taxes unconstitutional as applied on the basis of both an exemption provided in 26 USCS 1402(g) for self-employed persons who conscientiously opposed acceptance of social security benefits and the First Amendment. On appeal, the government argued that the payment of social security taxes did not threaten the integrity of the Amish religious belief or observance.


Can the U.S. government require payment of Social Security taxes from those who religiously object to the receipt of the attached benefits?


Yes. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the majority opinion reversing and remanding. The Supreme Court held that the §1402(g) exemption only applied to self-employed individuals, not employers and employees like those involved in this case. The Court held that the tax was not unconstitutional as applied. By becoming an employer, Lee entered into commercial activity and accepted certain limits on the exercise of his beliefs.Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a concurrence, stating that the tax objector has the burden of showing that there is a unique reason for allowing an exemption from a valid law when the objectors religious obligation and civic obligation are irreconcilable.

Case Information

  • Citation: 455 US 252 (1982)
  • Argued: Nov 2, 1981
  • Decided Feb 23, 1982Granted: Mar 23, 1981