House Bill Proposes Conscientious Objection Option for War Taxes

Death and taxes: The unconscionable connection

May 2004 | Sojourners

by Timothy Godshall

No one argues the certainty of death and taxes. It is the connection between the two that weighs heavily on the consciences of many.

In 2003, nearly 42 cents out of every U.S. income tax dollar paid for the military. And this year we will be asked to pay even more for high-tech weaponry while billions of dollars are cut from social programs. The president’s 2005 budget proposal calls for a 7% increase in military spending. By comparison, the increase in domestic, non-homeland security spending is 0.1%. When adjusted for inflation, this negligible increase is actually a net decrease in funding for domestic programs.

The Cold War gave rise to the Military Industrial Complex, but the Cold War’s end has not brought about a decrease in military spending. Retired Admiral Eugene Carroll Jr. assessed the situation in this way: “For 45 years of the Cold War we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union. Now it appears we’re in an arms race with ourselves.” The president’s proposed military budget, $421 billion, exceeds the combined military budgets of the 25 next-biggest military spenders in the world!

The U.S. military, funded by our tax dollars, does violence on two levels. Obviously, missiles, bombs, and guns are designed to destroy. But even if they are never launched, dropped, or fired, these weapons do violence by consuming resources that could otherwise have gone to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and healing the sick. Many people hold the deep conviction that they cannot pay for this double violence.

U.S. draft law since World War II has acknowledged the right to conscientious objection to military participation. Draftees have been given alternatives to serve their country non-militarily. Tax law, however, continues to draft the tax dollars of conscientious objectors who see no moral difference between killing and paying for someone else to kill.

Despite the lack of legal recognition, conscientious objectors continue to refuse to pay for war, risking fines, bank account and property seizures, levies on their wages, and sometimes jail sentences. Some even impoverish themselves and their families rather than be legally bound to pay such taxes. These are people deeply driven by values born of conscience. In a country founded on ideals of freedom of religion and belief, shouldn’t conscientious objectors to military taxation be given a way to pay their taxes without paying for war?

A bill currently before Congress, H.R. 2037, would provide just such an option. The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill would recognize conscientious objection for taxpayers who, on religious or ethical grounds, cannot participate in the funding of war or preparation for war. Taxpayers who now unlawfully withhold the portion of their taxes that support military spending would be able to pay their full taxes once again, while still giving voice to their conscience.

The Peace Tax Fund Bill is molded in the image of conscientious objection to military service. It would not reduce an individual’s tax liability, nor would it directly alter the level of military spending as established by Congress. It would channel the current military portion of an objector’s income tax to life-affirming governmental programs.

A Peace Tax Fund would provide an opportunity for as many as 160 million taxpayers to examine their consciences each year on the question of war and taxes. Each year, Congress would report the level of usage of the Peace Tax Fund, providing a measure of the nation’s conscience regarding the inhumanity of war.

H.R. 2037 was introduced into the House of Representatives by John Lewis (D-GA). It currently has 37 additional co-sponsors. At a time when many legislators are caving in to pressure to restrict civil liberties and rely heavily on military might, it is refreshing to see the courage shown by these co-sponsors who believe in the value of conscience, regardless of their own personal beliefs on war. Support for a Peace Tax Fund Bill has expanded beyond just the historic peace churches to many mainline religious bodies that formally endorsed the Peace Tax Fund Bill as a matter of freedom of conscience.

“Both morals and sound policy require that the state should not violate the conscience of the individual,” said Chief Justice Harlan Fisk Stone. “All our history gives confirmation to the view that liberty of conscience has a moral and social value which makes it worthy of preservation at the hands of the state…. It may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by that process.”

The movement to respect freedom of conscience continues to grow, even during the current climate of fear and militarism. If this country is to live up to the ideals on which it was founded, conscientious objectors must be given alternative service for their drafted dollars.

Timothy Godshall is outreach and development associate at the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. For more information, call (888) PEACETAX; visit; or e-mail

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