by Carl Watner
Number 94 – Oct 1998
Government protection (alleged) of property rights is one of those political myths which our government uses quite effectively to legitimize its conquest over us. In reality, governments can only negate property rights, not protect them. This is true for a number of reasons, both theoretical and historical. First of all, governments have historically derived their revenues from taxation. This necessarily violates the rights of those who would not voluntarily support them. If those people do not willingly surrender some of their property to the government in the form of taxes, government agents will ultimately either seize their property or imprison them for willful evasion. Secondly, all governments presume to establish a compulsory monopoly of defense (police, courts, law) services over a given geographical area. Individual property owners who do not wish to be included are “protected” nonetheless. If they resist the enforcement of government laws, they will eventually be jailed for obstruction of governmental administration of justice, or killed for resisting armed government officers.
One of the primary ways that local governments in the United States exercise their sovereignty is by the collection of real property taxes assessed against real estate located within their geo-political boundaries. (The ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA  reports that “Property tax receipts supplied about half of the revenue raised by local governments in the United States.”) It is immaterial to the collection of the tax whether the landowner resides within or without the sovereign domain of that political jurisdiction. The reason for this is that the political unit maintains the right to seize and legally re-title the property for failure to pay the tax. In other words, if ownership is described as the right of final authority and control over a given piece of property, the landowner, so-called, is not really the owner. That piece of property “belongs” to the landowner only if the real estate tax is paid in a timely manner. One might have termed this “tribute” during the Middle Ages, or “land rent” during the 18th Century. However, in our contemporary world of political euphemisms, the person paying the rent is called the “owner” and the agency collection it is referred to as a “government”. The point is that the person, organization, or institution collecting the “tribute” or “rent” is the real owner.
Land taxes are probably the oldest form of taxation. They were found in China as early as 2000 B.C. Real estate taxes are probably the most fail-safe method of taxation because they are difficult to evade and the land itself cannot be physically moved from one jurisdiction to another. If the owner of the land refuses to pay the tax, the land can be seized by the governing authority and sold for back taxes. Common usage and ancient custom cannot disguise the fact that tax seizures and auctions amount to nothing less than robbery and outright confiscation, even if conducted under the cloak of the law. Real estate tax auctions happen regularly all over the United States, and landowners generally do not resist the legal processes involved. (They recognize the futility.) The main purpose of this article is to describe what happens when a stubborn taxpayer resists the payment of land taxes and is willing to suffer financial losses, personal imprisonment, and evicton for failure to voluntarily cooperate with the local government’s effort to regain control over that landowner’s property.
Long-time readers of The Voluntaryist will recall an article about the Embassy of Heaven Church that appeared in Whole No. 68, entitled “Un-Licensed – Un-Numbered – Un-Taxed.” The early part of that article mentioned a proclamation of land use issued in 1987 by Paul Revere, pastor of the church. In that document, Revere announced that the Church’s property had “been removed from the ownership and control of the world and rulers of men,” and that the church intended to stop paying property taxes on the real estate it used and owned. In 1988, Revere and his wife officially deeded the 34 acres they owned to the Embassy of Heaven Church. In August 1990, as pastor of the church, he filed a statement declaring that the Church’s land is exempt from Marion County real property tax. This was done in accord with Section 307.162 of the Oregon Code of laws which reads: “Necessity of filing statement to secure exemption. Before any real property may be exempted from taxation … the institution … claiming the exemption shall file with the county assessor … a statement verified by … oath or affirmation … listing all real property claimed to be exempt, and showing the purpose for which such property is used….” At that point, Revere acted as though he and the Church were “un-taxed” and paid no further monies to Marion County. Unfortunately, the State didn’t see it his way.
The story of the subsequent “showdown” at Sublimity, Oregon demonstrates the nature of the State. If the owner of a parcel of land refuses to pay the tax, for whatever reason, the county must initiate foreclosure proceedings to collect its back taxes. In effect, the county sues the property owner for the amount due, and upon failure of the property owner to pay, the county sheriff seizes the property and evicts any dwellers. In Oregon, a state court orders that a provisional deed be registered in the name of the county, and the original owner is given a two year redemption period, during which the back taxes and penalties may be paid and the land returned to its original ownership. Upon the expiration of the two year period, the county, as new owner, may use the land, sell it, or do with it as it pleases. If the land is sold, all proceeds – even if in excess of the amount of back taxes – are kept by the county.
Generally speaking, this legal scenario was followed in the case of the Embassy of Heaven Church. The Assessor of Marion County denied the Church’s request for an exemption from property tax on September 17, 1990. Four years later, in October 1994, a “Judgment and Decree and Order of the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon” was issued by which the Embassy of Heaven property was sold to Marion County, subject to a redemption period of two years. In accord with that judicial decree, on November 7, 1996 the Marion County Tax Collector deeded the Church’s property to Marion County. A week after that, the Revere’s were notified by the County that they had thirty days to remove themselves and all personal possessions from the property.
What was the Church’s reaction to all is hocus pocus? First of all, back in 1990, after the exemption was denied, Paul Revere tried to get the County to explain the reasons for the denial. A full explanation was never forthcoming, except to the extent that the County insisted the Church must have its tax-exempt status formally recognized by the federal Internal Revenue Service before the County would consider a local property tax exemption. Since the Embassy of Heaven was a non-state, or common law, church (one not incorporated by government at any level) Revere refused to concede this was necessary. As far as he and the Church were concerned, he had filed the statement for the exemption. There was nothing in the Oregon law that gave Marion County the authority to deny that statement. When the County sent tax bills in 1991 and later years, Revere returned the bills to the County claiming a church exemption. Revere had no judicial notice in 1994, when the property was formally deeded to Marion County. Neither the Circuit Court nor the public attorney appointed by the Court to represent the Church ever contacted Revere to tell him what was happening.
Finally, on January 31, 1997 the County’s patience ended. The Church property was raided and seized. At least 30 (some say as many as 100) federal, state, and county officers, supported by two armored vehicles, raided the property and evicted the residents. Revere and two other men were arrested for refusing to leave. (Officially they were charged with “obstruction governmental administration”, and were released after five days in jail when the charges were discontinued.) All the personal property belonging to the Church and those living on the land was confiscated and placed in storage. This included nine Church vehicles. State of Oregon Children Service Division personnel were on hand to remove the pastor’s two daughters, ages 14 and 17, to institutional placement. However, this was unnecessary as they remained in the custody of his wife, Rachel. In addition, about $15,000 worth of silver coins, which had been donated to the Church, were seized by the Internal Revenue Service at the time of the raid. Ultimately, the vehicles and other personal property were returned to Revere; the coins were auctioned off in March 1997 by the IRS for $11,667. The proceeds went to partially satisfy a federal tax lien against Revere, which the IRS had put in place in 1991 for the years 1983, 1984, and 1986, for which Revere had filed no returns.
The 34 acres were auctioned off at the county courthouse in Salem, Oregon on May 23, 1997. The only (and successful) bidder was Mr. J. D. Bruce of Sublimity, who bought the property for $119,000. The County claimed a debt of $16,412 against the property, but according to State law it was permitted to keep the excess generated by the auction. Revere and supporters of the Embassy of Heaven Church garnered a great deal of local publicity over the injustice perpetrated by the County upon the Church, and were successful in persuading most potential bidders to shun the auction. It is Revere’s position that the County violated its own laws in foreclosing on and selling the property. A purchaser could only buy whatever interest the County had in the property; and since the County did not have the option to reject the statement of tax exemption and never notified the Church of the end of the two year redemption period, it had no real legal interest in the property and could convey nothing to the new buyer. The County’s position is to let the title companies sort things out, if and when subsequent buyers seek title insurance.
Since the Embassy of Heaven Church began in the mid-1980’s, Revere has preached nonviolence, avoided lawsuits, and lost all confidence in the justice of the courts. He certainly does not plan to sue the County. Instead, he hopes to continue in possession of the land by erecting signs and placing several church members back on the land to establish an office. Though these people may go to jail for tresspassing, Revere hopes to use their imprisonment as a way to publicly highlight the illegal and unlawful seizure of the Church’s property.
Many public commentators have pointed out the parallels between the raid on the Church’s property and government raids at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas. Although on one was killed at Sublimity and neither of these earlier attacks involved non-payment of taxes, all three were similar in that the governments involved used massive amounts of physical force and military armaments to subdue uncooperative subjects. Revere, and others, have raised certain Church vs. State issues, such as whether or not the State can pick and choose which religions it will recognize and exempt from taxes. This, however, begs the question. The main issue is whether or not governments should have the right and power to tax anyone, much less churches.
The real tragedy at Sublimity is that no writer or participant has challenged the right of the State to collect taxes. As I pointed out in my article on “The Tragedy of Political Government” (Whole No. 79), the main problem is that few people realize government is an immoral and impractical institution. Most people have been conditioned – via public schooling – to accept government as a natural part of their environment. Therefore they never question the legitimacy of taxation.. The purpose of this article, indeed of the whole Voluntaryist enterprise, is to challenge the legitimacy of the State and activities, such as taxation, which support the State. Taxation is theft, regardless of what the government calls it. The real challenge to voluntaryists – if further tragedies like those at Sublimity are to be avoided – is that more and more people must be educated to understand the nature of the State and taxation. “Challenge or Tragedy” – which shall it be?