The NWTRCC National Gathering in Richmond

We have reached the end of the NWTRCC national gathering, held this time at the Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

The bulk of ’s portion of the conference was largely a series of workshops on subjects like:

  • basic war tax resistance (what we call informally “WTR101”)
  • the peace tax fund campaign
  • military counter-recruitment and support for conscientious objectors
  • advanced war tax resistance
  • the history of Quaker war tax resistance
  • “economic disobedience”
  • the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and its alternatives: a case study in East Africa
  • war tax resistance questions & answers
  • conscientious objection to the military and taxes for the military

Some of these sessions ran at the same time, and for a couple of them (the WTR101 and history of Quaker war tax resistance) I was one of the presenters, so I only was able to take notes on one of the two “economic disobedience” sessions.

In that session, Erica Weiland began by summarizing my report on the Spanish “desobediencia integral” movement and then she brought us up to date with new developments. These include the “Earth cooperative for a fair economy” and its alternative currency, the “FairCoin,” which is somewhat Bitcoin-like but is explicitly designed to promote a certain sort of economic model. (I’ve looked at some of the FairCoin outreach material, but whether from translation difficulties or my amateur economics knowledge, I can’t quite figure out what makes it tick.)

The war tax resistance movement in the United States has made some contact with this Spanish movement and we’ve started to explore situating our work in the terminology and framework of this “comprehensive disobedience” movement, which helps to connect our work with the emerging sharing economy movement, Occupy, the modern environmentalist movement, and things of that sort.

Erica was joined by Jim Stockwell, who gave us a more historical perspective of how this sort of thinking weaves into a long thread connecting decentralism, Georgism, cooperative villages, the thought of Ralph Borsodi, and other related ideas. Erica added some insight from her research into the cooperative movement among African-Americans in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods.

Erica then introduced us to some of what the Strike Debt group have been doing lately. This group grew out of Occupy and the Rolling Jubilee project.

One of the actions associated with this group was the purchase and retirement of a large amount of medical debt. They then purchased and retired some student debt in the same way. Debts like these are packaged into groups based on how likely the debts are to be recovered. Those debts that are very unlikely to be recovered, often because the debtor is too poor to pay, can be purchased for pennies on the dollar. By retiring these debts, the project can reduce the stress of collection agency harassment on such people. They are also trying to unionize students who have debt to particularly exploitative colleges to encourage them to strike collectively for debt relief.

The Strike Debt Operations Manual was republished a while back with a new chapter on tax resistance, which was largely based on NWTRCC literature.

We brainstormed some ideas for trying to connect the U.S. war tax resistance movement with a movement for a larger grassroots economic transformation. Some ideas we tossed around included:

  • the use of community development loan funds (such as Equity Trust) as investments for our alternative funds or as ways of shielding assets from the IRS in less-visible zero-interest loans
  • encouraging the various regional alternative funds to coordinate their grants so as to support projects that build new economic models in a more systematic and well-publicized way
  • using redirected taxes to create a war tax resisters’ revolving loan fund
  • creating an alternative fund that uses a different granting model — rather than giving grants annually at a particular time, give grants at irregular intervals in reaction to acute needs.

Yesterday, attorney Peter Goldberger, who has worked closely with the war tax resistance community for many years, brought us up to date on how the climate for pressing for the legal recognition of conscientious objection to military taxation in the courts has changed in recent years, particularly in the wake of the recent “Hobby Lobby” case.

When I read the “Hobby Lobby” ruling, I didn’t see much that seemed encouraging. There were some hopeful-sounding parts of it, like this bit from the majority opinion’s summary:

The belief of the Hahns and Greens implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is immoral for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. It is not for this Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.

But the justices were careful to remind war tax resisters that we’re out of luck if we think we can use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to assert the legal validity of our beliefs:

United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, which upheld the payment of Social Security taxes despite an employer’s religious objection, is not analogous. It turned primarily on the special problems associated with a national system of taxation; and if Lee were a RFRA case, the fundamental point would still be that there is no less restrictive alternative to the categorical requirement to pay taxes.

The “Hobby Lobby” opinion itself expands on this a bit:

Lee was a free-exercise, not a RFRA, case, but if the issue in Lee were analyzed under the RFRA framework, the fundamental point would be that there simply is no less restrictive alternative to the categorical requirement to pay taxes. Because of the enormous variety of government expenditures funded by tax dollars, allowing tax-payers to withhold a portion of their tax obligations on religious ground would lead to chaos. Recognizing exemptions from the contraceptive mandate is very different…

The “Hobby Lobby” dissent goes so far as to describe the opinion as one that grants new powers of legal conscientious objection to just about everybody except tax resisters:

In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

If you hoped the dissenters might be more sympathetic to the use of the RFRA in war tax resistance cases, you won’t find much support for your hopes here. The dissenters for the most part seemed inclined to generally weaken the reach of the RFRA.

But again, this was all just my first impression, and I’m not a lawyer. Peter Goldberger is, and he’s worked in the area of conscientious objection and the free exercise clause for a long time, and he gave the “Hobby Lobby” decision a lot of thought and found some interesting angles.

For one thing, when the Supreme Court used conscientious objection to military taxation as a reductio in Lee and Hobby Lobby, it did so in cases that themselves did not concern conscientious objection to military taxation. They assumed that the government could not accommodate the beliefs of such resisters without “chaos” breaking out — that it would be too onerous for the government to accommodate such objectors. But there was nobody there to argue the objectors’ side and to present evidence that this was not necessarily true. Perhaps in a more direct case, objectors might be able to present evidence that would convince the court to revise its point of view.

The Hobby Lobby case also seems like it might usefully expand the right of conscientious objectors to military service. Previously the court had ruled that there was no constitutional right to conscientious objection, and so objectors enjoyed only those rights that Congress had chosen to grant them by statute. The language of Hobby Lobby seems to suggest that now, the government will have to prove a fairly strictly-defined compelling government interest if it wants to restrict the rights of draftees or military personnel who are or who become conscientious objectors for religious reasons.

For example, Goldberger suggests, Congress has defined legal conscientious objection to military service so that it only applies to pacifists — that is, to people who object to all war. It does not apply to religious objectors, for instance Catholics, who belong to a “just war” tradition which asks them to evaluate war by certain criteria and conscientiously object only to a subset of them. Goldberger suggests that the new RFRA standard, as elaborated in Hobby Lobby, could invalidate this and force the government to accommodate more varieties of religious conscientious objection.

Goldberger thinks this might also be a good time for a challenge from someone of the variety of war tax resisters who resists by putting the amount of the tax into an escrow account and telling the IRS that it may seize the money if it wants to, but that the resister is unwilling to pay it voluntarily. Since the IRS could accommodate the resister’s religiously-based conscientious objection, without undue difficulty for the government and without unleashing “chaos,” by simply seizing the money, perhaps the objector has a legal right not to be further penalized or subject to legal sanctions of other sorts for such a stand.

Finally, since Hobby Lobby (somewhat notoriously) decided that corporations can, under some circumstances, have some rights of their own under the RFRA, this may be a way to ask the Court to revisit a case similar to the Priscilla Adams case that it turned down on procedural grounds back in the day. Adams was a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (a Quaker corporation) employee and a war tax resister. Her employer went to court to try to gain the right not to have to withhold taxes from her salary as this would force them to participate in violating her conscience.

Myself, I don’t see a lot of use in looking to the legal system for help, but I think this sort of thing is interesting and kind of fun to explore.