August 3, 2002

War Resisters: 'We Won't Go' to 'We Won't Pay'


You could hardly find a more problematic time for pacifists who do not want their taxes spent on the military. But the recent wave of patriotic fervor has only reinvigorated the efforts of one tiny, determined group.

"On the Friday after Sept. 11, I was told I should lay low for a while," said Marian Franz, executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. "Now I have been told this is the time. As the war grows, so does the antiwar movement."

For more than three decades, the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund has petitioned the federal government for a way to earmark the tax revenues that would go to the military usually around 50 percent for nonmilitary purposes, like education or health care. Like conscientious objectors who in the past were offered an alternative to military service, these resisters say the First Amendment protects their ethical or religious objections to paying for war with their taxes.

Like other groups that have struggled to reconcile the obligations of citizenship with antiwar beliefs, the campaign has had a marked increase in inquiries from the public over the last year. At the Center on Conscience and War, a Washington-based national nonprofit group that works for the rights of conscientious objectors, phone calls quadrupled right after Sept. 11 and are now about 4,000 a month, double the usual number, said J. E. McNeil, the center's executive director.

Mary Loehr, the coordinator of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, an organization based in Ithaca, N.Y., that links 50 groups opposing war or weapons, has also seen a surge in interest. "Starting Sept. 11 through this past May, we have had a call a day from people asking for information, and our busy season is usually January through April," she said. "I would get 70-year-old women from the Midwest saying: `I don't want to pay for this. Will it hurt my Social Security?' "

The debate over whether it is justifiable to withhold tax money from the military was waged on religious, philosophical and legal grounds even before supporters managed to have a bill on the matter introduced in Congress.

Derrick Bell, a visiting professor at the New York University Law School and an expert on constitutional issues, says the law doesn't allow people to pick and choose where their tax money goes, as if they were at a buffet. "When particular groups try to exempt themselves from having their tax money support a particular government activity, there is no legal precedent for that," he said.

Professor Bell said the prevailing standard was that the "free exercise" of religion clause in the First Amendment was violated only if a law was shown to be irrational or unreasonable, or that someone suffered some special harm from it.

He noted, too, that even the right to be a conscientious objector to military service was established by statute and theoretically could be overturned by Congress. "There is nothing written in stone," Professor Bell said. "Even the `free exercise' clause has been variously interpreted."

Opponents of the tax initiative commonly cite the fear that exempting some taxpayers for their religious beliefs would open a floodgate of claims from others objecting to federal support for everything from the arts to AIDS research. Last year, for instance, a bill was introduced in the Illinois Legislature that would allow taxpayers who are against the death penalty to have the portion of their taxes that finances executions go to schools. The bill, which never had any significant support, was killed.

But advocates counter that pacifism, often grounded in religious belief, is in a category by itself.

"Whenever you come up with a new issue, you hear `slippery slope,' `Pandora's box,' " said Ms. McNeil of the Center on Conscience and War, who is also a lawyer. "There is no floodgate. A minuscule amount of taxpayer money goes to pay for abortion or the death penalty, and other issues are political, not religious."

In the United States, there has been a long religious and ethical tradition of opposition to war. During the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes because he opposed slavery and the military. The Mennonites, the Quakers and the members of the Church of the Brethren, who belong to what are known as historic peace churches because of their pacifist tradition, all refused to take part in the American Revolution. They laid the foundation for the creation in 1940 of the Selective Service Alternative Service Program for conscientious objectors, which started with World War II.

Until then, there was no legal recognition for conscientious objection. During World I, 17 soldiers who were conscientious objectors even received death sentences in a military court, although none were carried out.

In 1965 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the criteria for conscientious objection could be broadened to include men who were not members of any religious denomination and in 1970 to include those who did not profess belief in a Supreme Being but had ethical or moral convictions against war.

Ms. Loehr, 44, who has been a war tax resister for 22 years, estimates that about 5,000 people around the country currently withhold taxes because of their objections to war and military spending.

Some tax resisters purposely keep their earnings too low to be taxed, she said, while some are self-employed and refuse to pay estimated tax;and some claim an abundance of tax exemptions so their employers cannot take the money from their paychecks.

The Rev. Michael J. Baxter, national secretary for the Catholic Peace Fellowship in South Bend, Ind., and a professor of theology at Notre Dame University, predicts resistance will rise. "I think as the U.S. gets ready to go to war in Iraq, there will be more tax resisters," he said. "Sometimes during war, the place that good Christians belong is in jail."

His group has already begun advising conscientious objectors in case the draft is revived, he said.

In June, to put a human face on their ideals, the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund put together a 15-page booklet featuring the smiling images and often sad tales of tax resisters across the country.

Some of the resisters profiled donate the taxes that they estimate would go to the military to other causes. Others have been imprisoned or lost their assets because of tax evasion. They say they have reached their convictions about the immorality of war through their religious beliefs or the influence of thinkers like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As pacifists and pastors in the Church of the Brethren, Phil and Louise Baldwin Rieman argue that contributing funds to war is the same as killing. For 30 years they have given about 60 percent of their taxes to civil rights and peace programs, despite Internal Revenue Service threats of liens against their bank accounts, wage-garnishment letters sent to churches where they worked and government seizure of their family van.

"We will look back on war someday like we did on slavery," said Mr. Rieman, who lives in Indianapolis. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he completed two years of alternative service.

"It feels lonely sometimes, but mostly it feels frustrating," said Mrs. Rieman, 56, describing the couple's long odyssey. "We can't buy a house, we can't buy a car. We don't enjoy the feeling of religious freedom they say we enjoy in this country."

Stanley M. Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, said many religious traditions had a history of resistance to laws they considered immoral, those statutes supporting slavery being prime examples.

Even the way that the standards for conscientious objection have changed, from requiring membership in a pacifist church to simply allowing the adherence to certain ethics, shows a government grappling with what constitutes religion, Professor Hauerwas said. Is it ethics, beliefs, membership?

The Peace Tax Fund bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code, setting up a nonmilitary fund to which pacifists could contribute the tax money that would otherwise go to the military. Introduced in 1972 by Representative Ron Dellums, Democrat of California, it has been reintroduced every year since and had 35 supporters in the House of Representatives during Congress's last session.

"Sept. 11 changed the equation once again," said Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, a two-time co-sponsor of the bill who no longer supports it. "A case could be made that if every American decided they didn't like certain policies and decided to withhold taxes, it would be a problem. It wreaks havoc with government."

But Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, the bill's current sponsor and a veteran of the civil rights movement, said Sept. 11 should not make a difference in supporting the rights of conscientious objectors. Other groups may have their own objections to the way federal taxes are spent, he said, but his philosophy was "you try to take the ones that have the largest meaning to the largest number of individuals."

"We will put on a whole new effort when we come back to Congress," said Mr. Lewis, an ordained Baptist minister. "Look at the military budget. We have enough bombs, we have enough missiles, we have enough guns."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company