WASHINGTON -- High-profile Republicans and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have decried the Obama administration's new contraception coverage rule as a violation of religious liberty, claiming the Constitution protects believers from financing activities that conflict with their faith. Join the club, say American pacifists.
For as long as the United States has been declaring war, there have been Americans who object to the use of violence on religious or moral grounds. Entire faiths are explicitly devoted to the total rejection of war: Quakers, Mennonites and many Pentacostal traditions, to name a few. Millions of members of other religions interpret the Sixth Commandment -- "thou shalt not kill" -- as a full ban on warfare. These people all still have to pay taxes, a tremendous percentage of which go to financing not only war, but capital punishment, a sometimes brutal prison system and the use of violence by police forces. The U.S. government has not found their religious views to be a valid exemption from citizens' tax responsibilities.
Many First Amendment scholars find the Catholic bishops' argument to be weak.
"There is absolutely no religious liberty infringement in requiring insurance companies to cover contraception," said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. "The birth control rule is what we call in First Amendment analysis a 'generally applicable and neutral law.' 'Generally applicable,' means it applies to everybody. And it's neutral -- it doesn't target any specific faith. So if a law is generally applicable and neutral, it's not a First Amendment violation. It's basic, elementary First Amendment law."
But if Republicans want to wage a First Amendment war over the contraception rule, they might want to consider the long history of American pacifism and its internal moral struggles with taxation. If, as Republicans are now claiming, it is a breach of the First Amendment to require Catholic hospitals to provide their employees with health insurance that covers birth control, then it would also follow that the war in Afghanistan must be a far more severe violation of religious liberty.
"The money that goes to war is such a huge amount, so much more than the amount that goes to abortion or even contraception of all things," said Ruth Benn, secretary of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee. "It's amazing that this can be seen as such a big deal compared to war."
Throughout last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, speakers and attendees repeateely invoked "religious liberty" to attack the new contraception rule, which requires all health insurance plans to cover birth control for free. Many even alleged that the Obama administration's rule amounts to a "war on religion."
During a floor speech on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boener (R-Ohio) declared, "Americans of every faith and political persuasion have mobilized in objection to a rule put forth by the Obama Administration that constitutes an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country. This rule would require faith-based employers -- including Catholic charities, schools, universities and hospitals -- to provide services they consider immoral."
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum also invoked the same argument during a "Meet the Press" appearance on Sunday.
"They are forcing religious organizations, either directly or indirectly, to pay for something that they find is a deeply, morally, you know, wrong thing," Santorum said. "And this is not what the government should be doing."
All of this is linked to the Catholic bishops' positon: "The mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such 'services' immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage."
Many pacifists don't believe the government should be forcing them to pay taxes that finance war. In 1971, the Peace Tax Fund began pushing to separate war taxes from all other federal revenues, and demanding that pacifists be exempt from the war levies. In 1972, they crafted a bill that would do exactly that. It still exists, but has never come up for a vote.
"I don't see the same level of energy support for our bill that you see in the objections to the president's call for contraception coverage," said Jack Payden-Travers, executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.
Since at least World War II, some committed pacifists have simply refused to pay taxes, citing a moral imperative not to participate in killing. Religious organizations are generally exempt from income taxes as a result of their nonprofit status, but they do have to pay payroll taxes on the wages they provide to their employees. Their employees' income is also subject to income tax. Many Catholic hospitals and other explicitly religious health organizations receive government subsidies.
Pacifist tax resisters include many committed members of other human rights causes, including civil rights activists and Vietnam War prostesters. During World War II, Methodist minister Ernest Bromley refused to pay a federal car tax that was being devoted to war operations. He went on to become one of the founding members of the Freedom Riders, a trailblazing civil rights group that bused activists into southern cities to protest segregation, a group which included now-Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who is not a tax-refuser.
Over time, members of the pacifist tax resistance movement began refusing to pay all taxes since such a high proportion of general tax revenue is devoted to war and military research. During the Vietnam era, Karl Meyer, a contributor to the Catholic Worker newspaper, was jailed for nine months for his refusal to pay taxes.
During an interview with HuffPost, Meyer invoked the contraception hubub, noting that there is a significant difference of degree in the funding provided for war in comparison to the funding for contraception. About 20 percent of the annual budget is currently funneled to the Department of Defense, but Meyer argues that about half of all federal tax revenue is devoted toward some kind of military purpose, if projects like nuclear research that take place outside DoD are included. Insurance coverage for contraception will be a comparatively paltry amount.
"When it gets down to some kind of miniscule level, like one-thousandth of a percentage of federal income tax revenue going to something you disagree with, you might as well stop doing anything," Meyer said. "You can't go to a store and buy something without indirectly contributing to something bad."
Meyer hasn't paid federal income taxes since 1960. The overwhelming majority of pacifist tax resisters are not jailed for their activities, but since many avoid taxes illegally, they do not wish to make their actions public, making it difficult to calculate how many such people actually exist. The NWTRCC counts 50 different organizations as members of its tax refusal network, however.
"There's a whole movement of pacifists who refuse to pay taxes," noted Bradford Lyttle, a nonviolence advocate who frequently runs for president on a pacifist platform. "They're quite well-organized; they hold conferences regularly." Lyttle doesn't pay taxes, but does so legally, by depreciating the value of a house he inherited from his parents against his rather low annual earnings.
In 1982, the Supreme Court rejected an Amish man's argument that his religion served as grounds for not paying Social Security taxes, noting that carving out specific exemptions for every variety of religious belief -- including pacifism -- would render the federal tax system unworkable.
"[I]t would be difficult to accommodate the comprehensive social security system with myriad exceptions flowing from a wide variety of religious beliefs," the opinion reads. "If, for example, a religious adherent believes war is a sin, and if a certain percentage of the federal budget can be identified as devoted to war-related activities, such individuals would have a similarly valid claim to be exempt from paying that percentage of the income tax. The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief."