War Tax Resister Francis J. Costello

From the Richmond County [North Carolina] Daily Journal:

Conscientious Taxpayer

 — “If I have any fear at all in my lifetime, it’s knowing exactly where my conscience is going to take me.”

Francis J. Costello’s conscience now has him battling with the federal government. At 33, a high school teacher, a husband and expectant father, Costello faces the loss of part of his salary and the eventual possibility of imprisonment.

One of the thousands of “conscientious taxpayers” who refuse to pay part or all of their taxes because of their opposition to war, Costello sees himself as struggling to maintain his personal integrity against the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice and, the ultimate foe, the Department of Defense.

The President and Congress may continue to debate over whether to provide further military aid to Indochina, whether to fund new weapons systems or whether to spend enough next year to maintain the position of the United States as the world’s leading military power. Costello and other individuals like him simply refuse to pay for it.

On , a federal judge handed down a decision against Costello in a civil action brought by the IRS for nonpayment of $659 in taxes for .

“Neither the First Amendment nor the other legal principles relied upon by the petitioner nor the evident sincerity of his beliefs furnishes any basis for granting him relief from his obligation to comply with the income tax law,” the judge wrote.

Conscience or not, Costello must pay the taxes, and the IRS will have the right to confiscate his wages to get the money, the court held. Costello says he will appeal.

Now the government is considering whether to file criminal charges against him for his tax returns of . Costello claimed as many as 10 exemptions so that less money would be withheld from his paycheck for taxes in proportion to the share of the Defense Department in the federal budget.

Costello says he took the extra money and poured it into community projects of his own choosing. But the law says falsely inflating exemptions is fraud, and he could wind up in prison.

There are others like Costello.

An IRS spokesman said that for , at the height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, there were 1,740 tax returns readily identifiable as protest returns for war resistance or other reasons; for , the number dropped to 667, although he said many such returns could go undetected.

The full scope of the protest might be more accurately reflected in the number of persons withholding payment of the federal excise tax on their telephone bills, a tax imposed specifically to pay for war costs. There were 56,445 instances in compared to 50,371 in , the IRS spokesman said.

“Normally we take collection action,” he said. “A lot of them make the token protest, but then they get the notice and pay it.”

If they don’t pay, the IRS can use such devices as levies on wages and “every once in a while some of them become criminal cases.”

Costello says he is very much afraid that his case will reach the stage of criminal prosecution. But as long as money is being poured into military expenditures, he says he feels obliged by conscience to resist.

“When I started this, the war was going on and we were a direct part of it. The only difference today is that our participation in it is not as evident,” he says.

Even if all wars were to cease, Costello says he would feel obliged to resist contributing to “defense” costs because “under the posture of nonviolence, there is really no such thing as self-defense when it involves the taking of another life.”

Costello says he first developed pacifist convictions while studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood in Brooklyn in . He left the seminary one year from ordination and immediately applied for and won “conscientious objector” status with the draft board.

He earned a masters degree in social work and was a community organizer for Catholic Charities in Brooklyn. He says that when he began his tax resistance in , things got uncomfortable for him at the Catholic agency, which depends heavily on government funding. Costello also said he was having differences with the agency over tactics, so he quit rather than force them to fire him.

By this time he had gotten married. He turned to teaching. Now he is going to nursing school three nights a week so he can gain another skill to broaden his options of serving the community.

If he persists in his tax resistance, he could lose his income — $13,000 when he was a social worker and $9,400 now as a teacher — and he could wind up in prison before he completes nursing school. And his first child is due in a month.