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Can We Hyde War Taxes? Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation

by Thad Crouch

Financial self-help author Vicki Robin says “Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for” when we work. She further explains that the use of our money is a use of our life energy. This implies that our use of money impacts our own human dignity.

Currently governments and employers around the world violate the consciences of a portion of their citizens and workers by coercing them to use their life energy to directly work to kill human beings. Some medical professionals cannot in good conscience participate in abortions, assisted suicide, or executions and, in some nations, people apply for military Conscientious Objection (CO) status. Practically all nations coerce most citizens to use their life energy for lethal purposes through taxation.

If we agree with Robin, then money taxed for killing is life energy used for killing—especially when the taxes are tied to income. A nation’s budgetary decisions are ethical decisions. Pro-life activists know this and have successfully restricted federal spending for abortion in numerous ways, most notably through the Hyde Amendment. Pro-peace activists and consistent pro-life activists have yet to even gain legal recognition for Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation (COMTs), however. What is our best chance to do so?

While we have not drafted young adult males for war since 1973, the federal income tax has continuously drafted taxpayers’ life energies for war since becoming permanent in 1913. The Selective Service Act provides legal protection for Conscientious Objection to military participation, but the tax code does not. Many women and men who find it unconscionable to directly kill in war also find it unconscionable to pay others to do so. If it’s wrong to murder another person, it’s clearly wrong to pay someone else to do it.

It is currently illegal under US law both to earn a livable income and simultaneously to follow the dictates of one’s conscience to practice Just War or pacifism or to abstain from participation in killing. It’s illegal to get a paycheck and love ones’ enemies. COMTs have had their wages, bank accounts, homes, and cars seized. Some have been imprisoned. Neither the First Amendment, Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nor the US Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) have successfully protected them thus far.

The RFRA was passed in 1993 and prohibits the government from burdening someone's exercise of religion unless the government has a compelling interest involved, in which case it must use the least restrictive means to further that interest. In the 1990s, the RFRA was applied to a legal case in which pro-life activists sought an exemption to a mandatory university registration fee that subsidized health insurance covering abortion. In the same decade, pro-peace activists tried to use the RFRA to protect Conscientious Objection to military taxation. Both cases lost in appellate court. To date, the Supreme Court has not heard any case that challenges military taxation by invoking the RFRA.

Recently, the Supreme Court has ruled twice in favor of RFRA exemptions to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These new rulings on the RFRA’s application to the ACA compelled employers to provide healthcare but without certain types of coverage that violated the employers’ religious beliefs, on the grounds that employees could get the relevant services through supplemental coverage. As a result of the rulings, the employers also did not have to pay government fines. Applying the RFRA to the ACA to exempt otherwise legally required payments set precedents for religious freedom.

Might these precedents apply to military taxation?

No one has yet challenged military taxation under the RFRA since the Supreme Court has applied the RFRA to the ACA. If someone did, we can expect the government to argue it has a compelling interest to fund the military, yet COMTs may find new allies among those who championed the recent RFRA-related cases. There is also a decades-long, ongoing effort to protect COMTs through legislation.

The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill, sponsored by the member of Congress and civil rights hero John Lewis, would divert the taxes of COMTs to a fund to be used for any nonmilitary purpose without reducing COMTs’ tax liability. In short, the bill extends the legal protection for military CO to taxpayers. While “religion” appears in the bill’s name, neither the bill nor military CO in general require religious belief. The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund says the bill would also require tax forms to explain that one can become a COMT, which would clearly raise awareness of the issue.

Until there is legal protection, practicing religious COMTs, such as Bill Ramsey and Lincoln Rice, risk consequences. Ramsey became a COMT during the American war in Vietnam. Rice is younger and was motivated by personal encounters with war refugees. All COMTs who spoke to me point out that the risk of prison is real but rare. The IRS prefers to coerce tax payment and seize assets rather than take prisoners. The collective COMT experience is that the IRS always offers a payment plan.

This option of a payment plan allows COMTs a choice to become either military taxation refusers, who will not cooperate with the IRS, or to become military taxation resisters who avoid imprisonment and limit financial loss. Some choose to be resisters because their objection to military taxation is in the context of other commitments, such as doing peace work or raising children. Others become resisters because they don’t think it’s currently strategically effective to be imprisoned or simply because they have lines they are not willing to cross. (Most COMTs in both categories actually call themselves “war tax resisters.”) Rice is categorized as a resister because he has agreed that his wife can, if needed, pay his IRS debt to avoid consequences. Ramsey helped create a COMT escrow fund from which contributing resisters can withdraw money to avoid prison and protect their property and finances.

Understanding their risks and options to manage them is vital for COMTs. Many look to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, which has been educating and supporting COMTs since 1982. Education could increase awareness of COMTs’ options, the number of active COMTs, and awareness of the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill. Yet not all COMTs would use the bill if it did pass.