Death and Taxes

Resisters Refuse to Pay for War and Its Environmental Fallout

Like most working Americans, Connecticut resident Rosa Packard files her taxes every spring. But since 1981, she has omitted one thing: the check. Instead she substitutes a letter to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) explaining that, as a Quaker, an environmentalist and a conscientious objector, she cannot pay for the preparation of war. “The military is the biggest polluter in the world,” she says. “Think of all the bombings, depleted uranium mines and resources damaged by war and war preparation, not to mention the genetic repercussions on future generations. I think people ought to think about the morality and practicality of destroying forms of life we rely on.”

Illustration: Tom Garcia

Until the world developed an environmental consciousness, destruction of crops, defoliation and widespread chemical contamination were accepted as necessary consequences of military conflict. World Wars I and II devastated the European environment, but that destruction received negligible attention at the time. It wasn’t until Vietnam, and widespread use of the jungle-destroying herbicide Agent Orange, that the long-lasting environmental fallout from war gained attention. And more recently, during the Gulf War and the conflict in Kosovo, chemical releases were widely reported, as was damage to oceans, rivers, forests and animal life.

Environmental destruction has become a major motivator for some tax resisters. Whether it be for environmental, political or spiritual reasons, an estimated 10,000 American resisters refuse to pay all or a portion of their federal income taxes. “The money that goes into the military leaves the needs of humans and the Earth unfulfilled,” says Priscilla Adams of New Jersey, a resister for 25 years. “It could be used to help people rather than to kill.”

Holding Back

Looking at the 2000 budget, the War Tax Resisters League found that roughly 50 percent of federal income taxes are spent on the military. While some withhold all of their income taxes, the 50 percent figure is used symbolically by many resisters as the portion they withhold from the IRS.

Most tactics resisters use are illegal. While only about two dozen have been imprisoned since World War II, it’s quite common for the IRS to collect money from the resisters’ bank accounts, garnish their wages, or seize their homes, cars or other assets. In fact, the only legal way to resist is to live beneath the taxable income bracket (about $7,000 for a single person) , a lifestyle which some have chosen.

Many redirect their taxes to organizations working for peace and justice issues. Adams, for example, lends her money to a peace fund that works on affordable housing and immigrant refugee issues. But what happens when the IRS comes knocking and won’t take no for an answer? If her money is seized, she can get it back from the fund.

Resisters have many different ways of dealing with IRS collection. Packard deposits her money into a Quaker’s regional escrow bank account, where it is held by a third party. This way, if the IRS seizes the money she owes, it isn’t directly from her. Packard says she is giving the IRS a chance to accommodate her religious position.

Making it Legal

For over 25 years, the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Bill has struggled toward congressional approval. The bill would create a non-military fund within the U.S. Treasury to receive the taxes of resisters, allowing people like Packard and Adams to legally obey their consciences. “Being a conscientious objector is not about refusing to pay taxes,” says Packard. “It’s about refusing to pay for killing.”

Opponents of the bill argue that if war tax resisters are allowed to earmark their money, then taxpayers opposing things like welfare and education would also want to do it. Marianne Franz, director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, thinks that is unlikely. “In the 16 years I’ve lobbied, I haven’t found a single person who risked losing their house or car to keep from paying for welfare,” says Franz. “That’s the difference between a belief and an opinion.”

There are legal ways to voice opposition to the environmental and human toll of war, without jeopardizing your relationship with the IRS. Opponents can contact the President and other government officials to encourage support of the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Bill and less military spending. They can participate in demonstrations at government buildings on April 15, Tax Day. They can also donate to the War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund, or educate friends, family and colleagues by discussing war tax resistance with them.