History Law Military

Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation

According to the National Priorities Project, about 25% of our tax dollars go to the Pentagon to finance the men, women, and weaponry that enables the United States military to fight its wars in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. An additional 13.2% goes to pay the national debt much of which was borrowed to pay for war.
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali may be one of the most well-known Americans who claimed conscientious objection to military service, refusing in 1967 to be inducted into the military after he was drafted. Ali was arreted and convicted for violating the Selective Service laws. His appeal went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who overturned it because the appeals board had given no reason for the denial of conscientious objection status, making it impossible to judge the merits of the case. (Image by Wikimedia Commons)

By Camillo Mac Bica / Pressenza

Moral Awareness and “Indirect Complicity”

It is, or should be, apparent to all morally aware and sensitive human beings, certainly all pacifists, that both a nation’s active combatants, members of the military on the battlefield, and its civilian population who support and finance the conflict with their tax dollars, must bear moral responsibility and suffer psychological, emotional, and moral injury for the death and destruction inevitable in war. This extension of the scope of complicity and moral culpability beyond the warrior, beyond the active combatant, is not new. Quaker John Fuller made a similar observation almost two centuries ago.

What difference is there, in principle, between killing a fellow man in war and paying another man to kill him? And, again, do not the Friends pay one man to kill another when they pay their share of the general tax towards the support of the government and the means of national defense?

I think it accurate to say that all concerned with peace, certainly all pacifists have a firm, fixed, and sincere religious and moral objection against both fighting in and supporting the bearing of arms in any form. Consequently, given this nation’s long history of respect for religious freedom and the Supreme Court’s recognition of the right to conscientious objection, it is time, nay, long past time, to take the next logical and morally required step of recognizing conscientious objection not only to military service (direct participation in war), but also to what is equally as morally abhorrent, the paying of taxes that support war and the bearing of arms in any form (indirect participation)—the financing of war. As Conscientious Objectors (COs) are granted relief from military and combat service, killing in war, so should COs be allowed a nonviolent and nonmilitary alternative to the use of their tax dollars for war and the taking of life.

The Hobby Lobby Precedent

Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation (COMT) is not new and relief from having to pay military taxes has been sought by pacifists and others concerned with issues of peace, religious freedom, and conscience for many years. In fact, in the late 1990s, Quaker tax resisters filed three court cases using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the First Amendment guarantee to freedom of religion to seek relief from penalties imposed upon tax resisters and to make the case for the legalization of Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation. Sadly, these cases were dismissed both by the lower Courts and by the Second and Third Circuit Court.

Though the Supreme Court has yet to consider the merits of Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation specifically, the recent decisions in what has become known as the “Hobby Lobby Case,” provide a clear legal precedent. Judge Roger Wollman of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down the first federal decision that the court must defer to the employers’

“. . . sincere religious belief that their participation in the accommodation process (the Contraceptive Mandate of the Affordable Care Act) makes them morally and spiritually complicit in providing abortifacient coverage . .”

Additionally, in this decision, the Court recognized, as have pacifists, the profound immorality of indirect complicity, and the moral culpability of a person who makes it possible for others to kill by their support, financial or otherwise. Judge Wollman continues,

“It is not our role to second guess honest assessment of a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another.”

In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores (6/2014) the Supreme Court concurred with Judge Wollman’s decision. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations – regarded as persons since the controversial “Citizens United” decision of 2010 – cannot be required to engage in an activity that violates the corporation owners’ strongly held religious beliefs/moral convictions, again the Affordable Care Acts’ provision that employers “provide and facilitate four potentially life-terminating drugs and devices in their health insurance plan” – the Contraceptive Mandate.

In an opinion supporting the Hobby Lobby decision, Associate Judge Samuel Alito, referencing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), writes;

“The plain terms of RFRA make it perfectly clear that Congress did not discriminate . . . against men and women who wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in a manner required by their religious beliefs . . . Our responsibility is to enforce the RFRA as written, and under the standard that RFRA prescribes, the HHS contraceptive mandate is unlawful.”

Certainly, the scope of the Hobby Lobby decision that owners of corporations not be required to act in violation of their strongly held religious beliefs/moral convictions must have universal application, i.e., must apply as well to all persons not only to those who own corporations. Consequently, the Supreme Court has, by once again asserting and now clarifying the scope of the Constitutional importance of respecting religious and moral convictions, provided guidance and a clear legal precedent for Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation. Justice Kennedy’s concurrence elaborates on the importance of this decision. He writes.

“Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion.”

To be clear, Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation does not require that pacifists be exempted from paying their fair share of taxes only that the tax code comply with the constitutional right of pacifists to freely practice their religion and live in accordance with the dictates of their consciences.

Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund

Because our system of taxation places all tax dollars in a general fund to be used at the government’s discretion for education, infrastructure, health care, military, etc., to ensure that the Conscientious Objector’s tax dollars not be used to fund the military and the taking of life, tax reform must recognize Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation and support the passage of the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act introduced in Congress by the late Representative John Lewis.

This bill directs the Department of the Treasury to establish the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund for the deposit of income, gift, and estate taxes paid by or on behalf of taxpayers: (1) who are designated conscientious objectors opposed to participation in war in any form based upon their sincerely held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs or training (within the meaning of the Military Selective Service Act) . . . Amounts deposited in the Fund shall be allocated annually to any appropriation not for a military purpose.


The Supreme Court has once again asserted the importance of religious freedom and of respecting the moral rights of citizens. As Justice Alito’s Opinion in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores made clear, the government, in this case, the IRS must not discriminate against men and women who wish not only to run their businesses but, perhaps more importantly, to live their lives in a manner required by their religious/moral beliefs. The IRS must heed the decision of Judge Wollman that it is not the role of government to interfere with and “second-guess the honest assessment of a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy.” The IRS must defer to the sincere religious/moral belief of pacifists that their participation in the military tax process makes them morally and spiritually complicit in the taking of life in war. That is, the IRS must recognize Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation and Congress must pass the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act.


  1. https://www.nationalpriorities.org/
  2. I am not including the 6% of their tax dollar, U.S. citizens paid towards Veterans benefits because many if not most pacifists see helping veterans with war/military injuries as a contractual and moral obligation of this nation.
  3. Remarks of John Fuller, Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, Amendments to the Constitution, Harrisburg, PA, 1837, p. 278.
  4. The United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163(1965); Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333(1970).
  5. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/citizens-united-explained
  6. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/4169/text?format=txt&r=260&s=2
Camillo Mac Bica
Camillo Mac Bica

Camillo Mac Bica, author and professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His books include “Beyond PTSD: The Moral Casualties of War,” (Gnosis Press, 2016), and “Worthy of Gratitude: Why Veterans May Not Want to be Thanked for Their “Service” in War” (Gnosis Press, 2015), “There Are No Flowers in a War Zone.”

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