Signed into law last year by Gov. Mike Pence (R), RFRA says the government must first prove a compelling interest before it intrudes on someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs, and it must do so in the least restrictive way. Modeled after a federal law that was enacted in 1993, the bill was met with nationwide backlash from those who believe it would allow discrimination against the LGBT community.
Tyms-Bey, who was charged in 2014 with three counts of Class D felony tax evasion charges for not paying $1,042.82 in income taxes for 2012, claims that RFRA unequivocally creates a defense for a crime — including the ones he’s accused of. He argues that he can assert the law to protect himself from prosecution, much as defendants use alibi or self-defense to defend themselves in criminal proceedings.
On July 1, 2015 — the same date RFRA took effect — Tyms-Bey notified a Marion County court of his intention to use the law as a defense at trial. A Marion County judge rejected his argument, so Tyms-Bey is seeking to reverse that decision in the Indiana Court of Appeals. The appellate court held oral arguments on the case Monday but has yet to issue a ruling.
“Put another way, the Indiana General Assembly has decided that in certain circumstances, an individual’s right to exercise his religion is more important than the State of Indiana’s interest in enforcing its laws,” Tyms-Bey’s appellate attorney, Victoria Bailey, argued in court records.
And this is where the case gets a bit tricky.
Tyms-Bey doesn’t say what his religious beliefs are — or how, specifically, they will be burdened by paying taxes.
His reason: That information shouldn’t be revealed until a jury trial. Jurors — not the court — must decide whether Tyms-Bey has a closely held religious belief, Matthew Gerber, his defense attorney in Marion County court, told the Indianapolis Star.
During the hearing, Appeals Court Judge Nancy Vaidik questioned whether that would result in a “trial by ambush” because prosecutors would have to figure out a strategy at the last minute, mid-trial.
But even if Tyms-Bey does explain how paying taxes burdens his religious liberty, his claims would have failed anyway because the government has a “well-recognized interest” to collect income taxes regardless of someone’s religious beliefs, Angela Sanchez of Indiana’s attorney general’s office argued in court records.
“The compelling government interest is that income tax funds the very existence of the government,” Sanchez said during the hearing Monday. “It’s not that RFRA doesn’t apply. . . . It’s that no individual’s religious belief could ever prevail over a compelling government interest in the collection of income tax.”
The state cites previous cases in which the government’s need to collect taxes trumped a person’s right to exercise his or her religion.
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a self-employed Pennsylvania Amish farmer must pay Social Security and unemployment taxes required of all employers, despite his religious belief against paying taxes. The state’s highest court reversed a lower court’s ruling that paying taxes violated the Amish man’s constitutional right to freely exercise his religion.
In 2000, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Indianapolis Baptist Temple could not be exempted from federal employment taxes despite its members’ religious belief that paying taxes is a sin.
More recently, a Marion County judge denied an Indianapolis woman’s request to dismiss child abuse charges against her after she argued that Indiana’s RFRA law gave her the right to discipline her son by beating him with a hanger. Kin Park Thaing instead pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to a year of probation.
Bailey, Tyms-Bey’s appellate attorney, cited the 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, dubbed a landmark victory for religious liberty. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that requiring Hobby Lobby to insure employees’ contraception was unconstitutional because it violated the religious belief of the company and its Christian founders.
Bailey argued during the hearing that the high court has found that “RFRA was designed to provide a very broad protections for religious liberty.” She also said that none of the federal cases the state cited address Tyms-Bey’s constitutional right to have a jury hear his defense.
RFRA has also been used to challenge Indiana’s marijuana laws: The First Church of Cannabis has filed a lawsuit in Indianapolis, arguing that consuming marijuana is part of its religion that’s protected under RFRA.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry told The Washington Post earlier that his office warned legislators that RFRA will be used to excuse what is otherwise considered a crime. He said his office urged lawmakers to exempt criminal statutes from the application of the law, but that did not happen.
“When the law was signed,” Gerber, Tyms-Bey’s defense attorney, told the Star, “it opened up a whole new world of legal defense.”