by Andy McKenna
In the Dec. 29 New York Times, George Bush said of Osama bin Laden: "His vision of the world is one in which there is no freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and/or freedom of conscience." But in the president's zealous fervor to export democracy at the end of a gun barrel, the he has denied many people these very freedoms. From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, for Muslims and antiwar protesters in the U.S., the Bush administration has run roughshod over civil liberties. Although I am not being detained or tortured, I am also paying a price for freedom.
As another tax year ends, many wage earners start preparing their 1040 forms for the Internal Revenue Service. Meanwhile, we members of Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation (ACOMT), a local peace group, are preparing to suffer the consequences of our principled refusal to pay taxes that fund war.
In 2004, ACOMT members experienced an increase in IRS seizures of our wages and bank accounts. A state worker had a bank account seized twice, and he recently received more garnishment notices from the IRS. A nonprofit employee who is a Catholic and an Army veteran was forced to reduce his income to avoid repeat levies. A Quaker emergency room physician, whose car was seized in 1991, was recently visited at her home by an IRS agent and faces possible seizure of her wages and another car. A teacher who is new to war tax resistance has already begun receiving collection notices. A housecleaner and artist continues living intentionally below the taxable level to legally avoid paying war taxes. In the fall, after 11 years of inaction, the IRS garnished my wages by taking all but $662.50 – the monthly federal poverty level – from my paychecks.
The $465 billion-a-year war machine has caused the deaths over 1,300 U.S. military personnel and as many as 100,000 Iraq civilians. According to the National Priorities Project, the Iraq war has cost Austin families $375 million to date. War tax resisters want to pay our taxes, but we cannot in good conscience pay others to kill in our names. We regularly redirect thousands of our tax dollars to humanitarian and peaceful causes. Last April 15, ACOMT gave money to the American Friends Service Committee's relief efforts in Iraq and to Austin's Nonmilitary Options for Youth. Just before Christmas, we made a donation to Casa Marianella and Posada Esperanza, two East Austin immigrant shelters. This is a drop in the bucket, but it is one drop less for the barrelfuls of blood being shed in the war in Iraq. It means a lot to the nonprofit groups struggling to fill the canyon in human-services funding left by the massive Pentagon budget. As much as 50 percent of federal income taxes (which does not include trust funds like Social Security or Medicare) go for past and present military spending, according to a federal budget analysis.
There ought to be a law (since the First Amendment apparently does not apply to us) that would enable us to direct our taxes to a Treasury Department fund dedicated to nonmilitary purposes. All of the members want to be able to legally pay their taxes for life-affirming programs. ACOMT believes the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill is the win-win solution. The legislation would restore civil liberties to this minority group of taxpayers by resolving the conflict between the tax code and First Amendment rights. It would extend the legal precedent in the Selective Service Act of 1940 so that conscientious objectors would pay their taxes for nonmilitary purposes. The bill has 44 congressional co-sponsors. ACOMT has built a statewide coalition of supporters, including several dozen Austin and Texas community groups, clergy, and over 1,000 citizens. Numerous national secular and religious organizations also endorse the effort. Despite bipartisan support, the bill sits in the Ways and Means Committee, where it has not had a hearing in over 10 years.
Thad Crouch, a former soldier, said, "In a nation founded for religious freedom, why is it against the law to love my enemies and to hold a job?"
ACOMT continues to be in contact with congressional representatives about the proposed legislative relief. The group has been in Austin for over 20 years with different members and is the Texas affiliate of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund and the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. Our group believes that the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill is a win-win solution for us and the government. The bill would grant civil liberties to our minority class of taxpayers by extending to war tax resisters the legal protections the Military Selective Service Act gave conscientious objectors. It would increase tax revenues and decrease the IRS' collection burden. However, it would not reduce the military budget or "open the floodgates" to other taxpayers.
Over 1,000 Central Texans have signed a petition in support of the bill, and dozens of Austin clergy, community groups, and statewide organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas have endorsed it. Many national secular and religious organizations – even the president's own denomination, the United Methodist Church – support the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. The bill has the bipartisan backing of 44 congressmen, including three Texan representatives. Despite this support, it has not had a hearing in a decade, while conscientious objectors around the U.S. have endured many civil liberties violations by the IRS.
Meanwhile, the war – and Americans paying half their taxes to fund it – continues unabated. Long-time war tax resister Karl Meyer recently said, "If progressives fail to resist militarism or refuse participation in it through the one form of participation that is demanded, that is to pay taxes, they should give up their pretensions to being in opposition." Those too faint at heart to try even symbolic war tax resistance can and should safely support the Peace Tax Fund.
The upcoming election in Iraq is a supposed step toward freedom there. But in the U.S., some of us are still struggling to enjoy freedom of conscience. "Freedom must be defended," the president once remarked. He should make a New Year's resolution to follow his own advice.
(For more information, e-mail Andy McKenna.)