Early in the morning of February 22, 2007, nearly three dozen Quakers and other supporters from New York, Massachusetts, and Great Britain gathered in the cafeteria of the Federal Courthouse on Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan for a special meeting for worship.
It was held in preparation for the argument of an appeal by Daniel Jenkins in his case of conscience against the U.S. Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, petitioning for recognition and accommodation of his belief that he should not be forced to support war in violation of his conscience.
Following a leading and supported by a clearness committee, Dan had redirected his income tax payment to an escrow account held in trust for the federal government until his right to the fundamental freedom of religious conscience was recognized and the funds guaranteed to be used for nonviolent means of peace and security.
The tax court ordered that Dan is compelled to pay the tax, along with accrued administrative penalties and interest. The judge also imposed an additional $5,000 “frivolous” fine for daring to claim a Constitutional right of conscience and religious freedom.
Individuals who stand up for their beliefs and let their voices be heard have formed much of our history. Today Daniel Jenkins is such a person.
Fred Dettmer, clerk of the Witness Coordinating Committee of New York Yearly Meeting and Dan’s attorney, argued the appeal before a panel of three federal judges. Fred pointed out to the court that the government has demonstrated its ability to accommodate Dan’s conscience by the same check boxes currently used at the top of the tax forms, and he argued that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act the government must provide accommodation so Dan can meet his obligation to the state, as he wishes to do, without violating the dictates of his conscience. New York Yearly Meeting also submitted an amicus brief, which may be seen at http://www.cpti.ws/court_docs/usa/jenkins/in.html; I recommend it as well worth reading.
The three-judge panel permitted an unusual time extension both in argument and in rebuttal. The two key parts of the argument are:
- Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government must prove a compelling reason for a law that imposes a burden on sincere religious beliefs.
- The Ninth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” which means that the right to conscientious objection to military taxation that was in the New York State Constitution was retained at that time, and it has since been exercised by persons with religious “scruples of conscience” who refused to supply armament or personal service to military activity. This is a clear example of a right to which the authors of the Constitution were referring in the Ninth Amendment. In their time, militia were organized by the state, so rights pertaining to conscientious objection to serving in or paying for war were appropriate to state constitutions, not the federal constitution. Through the Ninth Amendment the people therefore retain these rights.
Dan felt that he was well represented and that the legal argument was heard. Although the case was published with a respectable seven-page opinion, the judges denied his appeal and upheld the $5,000 fine.
As Fred Dettmer argued, upholding this fine can only be interpreted as U.S. courts intentionally seeking to obstruct citizens’ pursuit of their Constitutional rights. To have a system for airing grievances that is at least physically nonviolent is commendable, but when that system refuses to acknowledge clear and compelling arguments, the people are set with a disturbing challenge.
The Jenkins case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. An amicus brief submitted by New York Yearly Meeting on July 5, 2007, in support of this petition includes an extensive review of historical information and Quaker practice. This document, too, is accessible on the web at http://www.cpti.ws/court_docs/usa/jenkins/in.html; it is very readable, and I recommend it highly.
Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said, “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.” How much do Friends want peace? Why have we Friends neglected our rights under any number of state constitutions? Why haven’t we all exercised our rights so strongly as to make them shine brilliantly?
We who are alive today are dealing with immense changes, which have been hard to grasp. My generation was born into a looming threat of nuclear winter in which human beings could wipe out all life as we know it. My children have been born into a threat of environmental disaster and global warming. We have an inescapable public awareness that human destructiveness is greater than the power of life.
In the face of this, Friends today are reclaiming—or yielding into (however you see it)—our faith in the Power of the Living Spirit to give life, joy, peace, and prosperity through love, integrity, and compassionate justice among people. Living in this faith, I discover the Power that takes away the need for war, wherein love, friendship, diplomacy, integrity, openness, equality, liberty, and compassionate justice become imperative—our only path to a sense of safety and security among us.
This is not a naïve faith. This is a faith encountered by people with much experience in the world. A young adult Friend, Sarah Mandolang, has written:
Growing up in the Religious Society of Friends the conversation of right and wrong, of conscience, and of war was a part of my understanding of the world. War has always been real to me. I have traveled back and forth to Indonesia my entire life, and bombs and internal conflicts exist there. Every day we drove on one road and then one day we took another road. It turned out that the day before there had been a bomb destroying one point on the road. One time we could not go to a movie because of riots downtown; later we learned the rioters had burned many of the buildings in the downtown area. Another reality of war for me was that my grandfather was in the Indonesian military during World War II, seeking independence from Dutch occupation; and I know that he brought his experiences of violence from the war into his home, and then my father brought that violence from his childhood into my childhood. Through my understandings and experiences I know that war does nothing to create true resolution, that war only creates more violence that lives on and reproduces long after the war is over.
I am glad to be part of a community that expressly knows that violence and the threat of violence will not bring about the beloved community and that is willing to stand up to say, “No, we will not participate in perpetuating these wrongs.”
To pay war taxes or to purchase from or invest in corporate structures that profit on war or use military might in order to secure wealth, in violation of our religious conviction, plants a dis-ease among us. Friends’ witness is letting our lives speak—not that we will be protected but that we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable—knowing our faith will sustain us, set us free, and give us joy. I have experienced this joy when I live in accord with my conscience and faith, regardless of the apparent, temporal consequences.
Shirley Way, a member of New York Yearly Meeting, crossed the line at Fort Benning, Georgia, to call for the closure of the School of the Americas because of its involvement in oppressive U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean (see http://www.soaw.org). One strength of the School of the Americas Watch witness is that every year person after person takes the stand in court and speaks his or her truth about the atrocities of war. It is astonishingly powerful.
Are there other Friends who will stand before the courts and proclaim our faith? Are there other Friends who feel compelled to write their statements of conscience and share them with others? Are there still other Friends who will make the commitment to represent and/or support any Friend who is called to this witness? If this speaks to you, please contact New York Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Conscientious Objection to Paying for War at email@example.com and look up guidelines for writing a statement of conscience at http://www.consciencestudio.com.
Our work is about putting our faith into action. If all Friends in the U.S. whose faith directed them to do so were to redirect the military portion (about 50 percent), or all of their taxes (since no matter how much money you send, half is taken for military), into an escrow account (see: http://www.nyym.org/purchasequarter/peacetax.html) in trust for the government until it recognizes our religious conviction and right to conscience, Friends might become the new suffragettes, but therein lies the Power in which we believe.
We need to heed the words of Friends who stated in the Declaration of Sentiments that initiated the women’s rights movement in this country:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [italics added]. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they were accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
I hold this truth to be self-evident: that fighting with outward weapons is inconsistent with my faith in the Power of the Living Spirit that guides and sustains us. Fighting with outward weapons will never bear the fruits of peace, which is the inalienable right of a faithful humanity.
Our federal courts have failed to recognize our rights to liberty of conscience. International human rights covenants have reaffirmed this fundamental freedom. It is our place to stand firm in our faith and have the abuses and usurpations be theirs, not ours—that we may rise to our civic duty to throw off such government and seek our own guards for our future security. This may bring upon us worldly sufferings with a glad heart and an eased conscience. In my experience, I testify that these sufferings are light compared to the great sufferings of heart and soul when I resist my faith and succumb to the pressures of a government gone astray.
People of faith have resisted payment of military taxes for centuries, just as we have objected to conscription for military service. Some groups immigrated to the Americas from Europe in order to establish and secure these religious freedoms.
Objection to paying for war has a history that puts it in a class of its own. No other issue has the historic precedence enumerated here. The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund would not provide a “special interest” tax exemption, of which there are already far too many. Rather, it simply acknowledges, respects, and accommodates the sincere religious conscience of many people in the United States. There is no question that Quaker opposition to war taxes is a sincere matter of conscience.
Quakers, Mennonites, Shakers, and others have maintained this testimony throughout U.S. history. Still many people today, of a wide variety of faiths, do not pay taxes for military purposes because this action violates their essential religious beliefs and moral convictions of conscience. Passage of this bill by Congress would facilitate the payment of all taxes owed by these principled people.
This continuous but little-known story of “religious conscience in action” has become especially timely. Militarism and the manufacture and export of weapons, often to people our government later names as enemies, have become a predominating U.S. cultural and economic theme. Armed services budgets continue to consume a significant proportion of federal tax revenue. The conduct of modern warfare involves relatively few voluntary foot soldiers, but rather a vast array of increasingly expensive high-tech machinery.
People of faith continue to be fined and penalized, even imprisoned, by our own government because there is no established “alternative nonmilitary service” for federal military tax dollars. Remarkably, accommodations for persons with such scruples of conscience were made in the colonial period, as well as included in state statutes and constitutions that were enacted during both pre-federal and post-federal times and are recognized currently for exemption from conscription.
Although the right to alternatives to military taxation was retained by the people through the Ninth Amendment, respect for religious belief has been gravely neglected by the current federal government.
If our faith has wavered—if we were discouraged by the overwhelming wave of human destructiveness—we are now called back into that eternal, infinite Living Spirit. As human beings we may be faced with our choice of peace or destruction, but Life in its infinite blessings and manifestations will persist, with or without us. New York Yearly Meeting reaffirms our faith today:
The Living Spirit works in the world to give life, joy, peace and prosperity through love, integrity and compassionate justice among people. We are united in this Power. We acknowledge that paying for war violates our religious conviction. We will seek ways to witness to this religious conviction in each of our communities. —NYYM, Fourth Month 2006
Ways to grow into and rediscover a witness to our religious faith and convictions include:
- Encourage your Friends meeting or church or other faith community to write a statement of conscientious objection to paying for war and deliver that message to your local communities and representatives.
- Write a statement of religious faith and conscience with the support of your faith community, include it with your tax return, and copy it to your local newspaper(s), Congressional representative, senators, faith community, faith publications, local review (draft) board, secretary of the treasury, taxpayer advocacy service, and/or the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund (see http://www.peacetaxfund.org). To the National Campaign, include a list of whom you’ve sent it to, permission to reprint, and a donation to follow-up in Washington, D.C.
- Redirect your taxes, or any portion (the entirety, the percent of military expenditure, or a token amount) to an escrow account to be held in trust for the U.S. government as an act of nonviolent
civil initiative. Those adopting this approach may spend time and energy in responding to the IRS and suffer penalties imposed by the government. It is good to form a clearness and support group for this action.
- Work through the courts to establish in law the rights already guaranteed by the First and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution and by international covenants that provide for freedom of religious expression, but continue to be ignored by our current government. Some individuals and a few groups have petitioned the courts to recognize their rights and you may be able to as well!
- Live below a taxable level. This is an individual choice to either keep income below a taxable bracket or to give away one’s income to reduce one’s tax liability. Financial and moral supports of others for this witness often make these choices more possible, especially over the long run.
- Withdraw any investments you may have in corporations that profit from war production and service and place your savings in accounts that will support and encourage your local community and purchase from local producers.
- Pursue local ordinances that deny corporations recognition as persons, gaining to them the rights of persons, and that deny recognition of corporate charters as contracts, reestablishing the oversight of government to engage in limited activities on benefit of the people (see http://www.poclad.org and http://www.celdef.org) since pursuit of excessive inequality in wealth for the few rather than the benefits of all is the driving force of militarism.
I am deeply indebted and grateful to the Living Spirit that illuminates me every day, and to all the members of New York Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Conscientious Objection to Paying for War, who inspire and challenge me and offer companionship on this spiritual journey.
This article was written with inspiration and seasoning from New York Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Conscientious Objection to Paying for War.