War Tax Resistance in the Friends Journal in 2000

War tax resistance in the Friends Journal in

The issues of Friends Journal had a few mentions of war tax resistance and an extensive debate about the wisdom of supporting the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund act.

The issue mentioned that J.E. McNeil had been named the head of the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors, and that her legal experience had included “cases involving war tax refusers and conscientious objectors to military service.”

The issue included an article about the Monteverde community in Costa Rica, which was founded by American Quakers who fled the United States in part to avoid paying military taxes there. Excerpts:

Many Friends know about Monteverde, the Quaker community established in Costa Rica in . “They came here to be free to practice religion in the way they felt was important.” They wanted no military taxes. They wanted to send their children to Quaker schools and to bring them up with a good sense of priorities, away from materialism and militarism. Some came out of a sense of adventure. Four of them had just spent time in prison for their beliefs. They wrote: “We hope to discover through Divine Guidance a way of life which would seek the good of each member of the community and live in a way that will naturally lead to peace rather than war.”

[At the trial of four Quaker conscientious objectors to draft registration], the judge said, “If you are not willing to defend this country, you should leave.” They decided to do just that but had to wait until their jail sentences were over. One couple in the meeting had visited Costa Rica, and several families had already been thinking of moving there. Besides being a fairly prosperous and democratic country, and not very crowded, Costa Rica abolished its army in . Forty-one people from the meeting eventually moved there, including the teacher of the meeting’s private school.

“We were looking for a peaceful place to raise our families without being involved in the military preparedness of the United States,” recalls Marvin Rockwell.

Marvin Rockwell ran the Flor Mar Pension, a simple hostel-like bed-and-breakfast with a pleasant restaurant serving delicious food. He says he was never disappointed in the hopes he had when he moved to Costa Rica. “Costa Ricans are a friendly, helpful people.” He smiles, “And I do not feel bad at all paying taxes in Costa Rica. The largest item in the tax budget is for education.”

In the same issue, Chuck Hosking (in the course of a larger article on ethical investing), said: “If I hadn’t had to start an IRA to lower my income below the taxable minimum (to avoid financing U.S. militarism), I would have put these retirement savings in the same place we’ve put most of our contingency savings — into no-interest loans to American Friends Service Committee and Right Sharing of World Resources.”

In there was a “Religion & Social Issues Forum” titled “Building a Culture of Peace” at the Pendle Hill Quaker conference center. Among the speakers at the conference was Gordon Browne, who “told of his experiences as a ‘military tax refuser’ for over thirty years” during “a session on how Friends can make a personal difference today.”

The issue commented on the Rosa Packard legal case:

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a Quaker appeal of Internal Revenue Service penalties on religious practice. Rosa Packard, a Greenwich, Conn., Quaker, had challenged the authority of the IRS to penalize her for religiously based non-payment of war-related federal income raxes. For the last 18 years Packard has filed her income tax return, notifying the IRS by an attached letter that her core religious beliefs prevent her from paying a tax if any part of the money collected from her is used to fund war or preparation for war. Every year she has placed the full amount of her taxes, as her letter to the IRS states, in trust for the government in an escrow account maintained by Purchase (N.Y.) Quarterly Meeting. In Packard requested that the federal government waive the discretionary penalties imposed by the IRS for late payment and failure to pay estimated taxes. Packard appealed the lower court’s dismissal of this request to the Supreme Court.

An obituary notice for Richard R. Catlett in the same issue noted that “Richard was a founding member of Columbia Meeting and an active war rax resister, for which he was imprisoned briefly about 25 years ago. In his war tax resistance, he was supported by both Illinois Yearly Meeting and Columbia Meeting, which held an open meeting for worship at the prison where he was held.”

The “Peace Tax Fund” debate

The last issue of had included an op-ed by Spencer Coxe in which he cast a skeptical eye on the Peace Tax Fund idea (see ♇ ). Boiled down, his complaints were these:

  1. The Peace Tax Fund bill would ostensibly allow conscientious objectors to earmark their taxes for non-military government spending, but this will not in fact make any practical difference whatsoever in how Congress spends tax money.
  2. Conscientious objectors could have more practical effect on actual military spending through such mundane political activities as lobbying, demonstrating, attempting to influence elections, and the like; and attempts to get a Peace Tax Fund bill passed distract from this.
  3. The idea behind the Peace Tax Fund concept — that individual taxpayers can override the spending priorities of their elected representatives with their own conscientious imperatives — is corrosive of democracy, which requires people to compromise and accept the decisions of their representatives rather than engaging in a free-for-all.
  4. If it were enacted, the Peace Tax Fund would make conscientious objectors to military taxation legal, and therefore mundane and unworthy of attention. In contrast to the war tax resister of today, whose sacrifices evoke admiration and controversy and government inconvenience, the Peace Tax Fund payer would just be another citizen checking a box on a form — which would “[channel] a potentially effective resistance movement into a harmless backwater.”

I have less faith in the democratic process and in democracy in general than does Coxe, but his criticisms are sound, and, from my perspective, way overdue. A sentimental, blinkered, panglossian take on the Peace Tax Fund bill had become part of the Quaker canon, and, disturbingly, had crowded out other discussion of the dilemma of paying for war with your taxes.

But now that the criticisms had finally been aired, how would the scheme’s supporters respond? Voiciferously, as future letters columns showed:

Edward F. Snyder partially conceded the point. “The aim [of the Bill] is not to reduce the military budget… The main purpose of the bill is to honor and respect the conscientious objections of those citizens who are opposed to war in any form, including the financing through their tax dollars…” He compared it to draftees who do “alternative service” rather than serving in the military. “If I thought the primary purpose of the Peace Tax Fund were to reduce the military budget as Spencer Coxe does, I’d be hard pressed to give the proposal the time of day, and for many of the reasons he cites. There are many more direct and effective ways to challenge military spending and the policies on which it rests.” But he believes that since this isn’t the purpose, the bill is still worthwhile. He also thinks that the fact that war is such a clear violation of a bedrock conscientious value, and because it is such a large part of the budget, it holds a unique place, and carving out an exemption for conscientious objectors here will not necessarily open the floodgates for vast numbers of objectors to every little this and that in the budget.

Joe Volk wrote an extensive op-ed in response (which, alas, is partially obscured in the PDF I have). He said that he had shared Coxe’s letter with the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Policy Committee (Volk was the FCNL executive secretary) as a way of provoking a discussion as to whether that group ought to change its policy of supporting the Peace Tax Fund bill (they decided to continue supporting it). Volk shares Snyder’s views that the slippery slope is not so slippery in this case, and that one can support the bill without believing that it would reduce military spending (“On the contrary, another argument for the Peace Tax Fund is that it would not alter Congress’s control of the purse strings” and “Of course, federal funds are fungible. Thus, whatever the Peace Tax Fund pays for simply frees other funds for the military.”) Volk asserted that were the Peace Tax Fund passed into law, rather than defanging conscientious objectors, it might free them from their current troubles in tax court to take up more productive struggles. Besides “the absence of the Peace Tax Fund does not seem to be generating the waves of protest and tension that Spencer Coxe fears we would lose were it enacted.” He also felt that rather than being corrosive of democracy, it was supportive of that essential element of democratic legitimacy that requires respect for minority opinions. And besides, Congress is carving out deductions and exemptions and other things all the time — it seems petty to pick out our own concern as the only one that’s corrosive of this manifestly imperfect democracy. Volk concluded:

My wife, Beth, and I have refused to pay our war taxes voluntarily . We want to pay our entire tax bill, but we won’t pay for weapons and the salaries of the people who use them. Having seen so much war and its effects, we could not voluntarily pay that portion of our tax that goes for war. So, we pay only that portion of our tax bill that does not pay for war. Every few years the IRS levies our bank account, wages, or savings. They take the principle, interest, and penalties on what we have refused to pay. We end up paying more to the government than had we paid the war tax. Once they took and auctioned our car. We no longer park it at our residence. We have never been able to own real estate; it would be confiscated. In the U.S. owning real estate has been a principal way for poor and middle-class people to accumulate wealth. Many of our friends could borrow on their land and property to put their children through school. We have not had that option. We are not complaining. We are happy following our conscience on this matter. We consider that these consequences of our war tax refusal are aspects of the voluntary self-suffering that nonviolent action uses to reveal truth to ourselves and to others. But we think the government should recognize our conscientious objection to paying war taxes so that we voluntarily can pay our entire tax bill. Today, we feel that we are being punished for our religious beliefs, a violation of the U.S. Constitution and of our human rights. Recognition of our claim to conscientious objection will not cut the military budget, will not end war, will not bring the Kingdom of Heaven. It will allow us to practice our faith without being punished for it. That’s a fairly radical idea still. It’s a dangerous thing too, but it can work without leading to anarchy.

Richard N. Reichley thought that Coxe was missing the point — that the Peace Tax Fund was not meant to put a dent in the military complex, but to permit certain taxpayers to follow their consciences. It might, he suggested, help spread the idea of conscientious objection to military spending: “Once the Peace Tax Fund Bill is passed, every taxpayer will know that it is law. IRS instructions will include the option to file as a conscientious objector. Perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised to learn how many Americans do not want to pay for war.”

Silas Weeks shared his frustrating experience with war tax resistance: “Eventually, the IRS invades our bank account and recovers [the] amount, plus interest and penalties. We end up paying more tax than we would otherwise have to, plus our income is reduced by whatever we have put in the local [alternative] fund.” He says that while “[i]t is extremely unlikely that the U.S. Congress will ever establish a legal peace tax alternative” it is “an improper judgment of others” to insist, as he says Coxe did, “that effort on behalf of a Peace Tax Fund wastes time and is a balm to individual conscience.”

Bruce Hawkins thought the Peace Tax Fund was not meant as an ultimate goal but as “an organizational and educational tool” for outreach and lobbying, and one that helps keep pacifist ideas on the agendas of legislators. “Don’t think for a moment that any of us will heave a sigh of relief and cease all political activity if the Peace Tax Fund passes! We would continue in the same political activity that we are in now, including support of sensible candidates for office. And we would encourage everyone we know to consider using the fund. One of our next goals would be to get enough people to use it so that it would make a difference. It will only be ‘low-key’ if we let it be low-key.”

Ben Tousley thought that while paying into a Peace Tax Fund might indeed have no practical effect on the military budget, the same could be said for many respected acts of “witnessing” — these things aren’t meant to be immediately, directly effective, but to have an eventual “transforming effect on both individuals and the larger society.”

Rosa Covington Packard echoed the idea that the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund bill was never meant “to influence the military budget” but instead “to acknowledge the inalienable right of conscientious objection to paying taxes for war and preparations for war and to accommodate it as a matter of religious freedom.” She also asserted that those who would take advantage of the Peace Tax Fund were not thereby engaging in a risk-free and invisible act:

When the bill passes, the option will be described in the tax forms everyone receives. Reports of numbers of conscientious objectors and amounts of taxes redirected to nonmilitary purposes will be published in the Congressional Record. The conscientious objector will affirm a statement of belief and ille it with his or her tax form. Even if conscientious objectors to paying for war are given legal status and accommodated, they will continue to suffer many forms of discrimination from the public and the military. Making slavery illegal did not end racial discrimination. Recognizing and accommodating conscientious objection to paying for war will not end religious discrimination.

Conscientious objectors were among the first to go to the gas chambers under Hitler. When we study the Holocaust, we mourn the atrocities against Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies — and “others” — our memories of the victims of war rarely even name conscientious objectors. Risk free indeed! We who choose a visible legal status may be more vulnerable to hostility.

Finally: “Without visible legal status, without acknowledgment that it is indeed legal to act upon our beliefs, our ‘democracy’ will continue to confuse and seduce each generation into thinking that war is honorable or necessary and that there are no other options.”

Mary Moulton addressed only the idea that the Peace Tax Fund would “ease the conscience of pacifists and [thereby] deflect them from hard work.” She said: “This prediction certainly would not apply to any of the peace activists I have known over the years.”

Samuel R. Tyson wrote in with his own set of objections:

  1. Conscientious objection laws discriminate in favor of members of historical “peace churches” which has the effect of adding a religious bias to the law.
  2. Such laws also (because they require objectors to convincingly testify to their conscientious beliefs) discriminate against people with less verbal or reasoning capabilities (a class bias).
  3. Such laws also, for the same reason, favor people with a paper trail in the “historically dominant white paper-based culture” which leads to a racial bias.

He concluded: “A Peace Tax Fund will make it easier for the few, without a full explanation in tax forms. Do we really want another federal bureaucracy to sit in judgment on conscience?”

Coxe wrote back, and in a letter that appeared in the issue. Excerpts:

The letters convince me that I overlooked two considerations, first that passage of the bill would signal a reaffirmation of our country’s respect for religious dissent (though in symbolic fashion), and second, that legislation would relieve the personal distress of pacifists.

I am surprised that no correspondent pointed out that logically my position is an attack on the legal recognition of conscientious refusal of military service.

As a matter of fact, I have come to the conviction (in my old age) that the pacifist movement might be strengthened if the government offered no alternative to military service except prison. Then the issue raised by the resister would be the government’s claimed power to conscript. In my view, conscription is the basic evil.

The government’s recognition of religious objection to military service blunts resistance to conscription.

Those who during the Viemam War said “Hell no we won’t go” were on the right track and did more co bring the war to an end than did the COs.

Debate aside, the issue noted that the Radnor, Pennsylvania, Meeting had approved a minute endorsing the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill, and considered this a way by which the Meeting “expresses its commitment to our historic Peace Testimony.”