Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation: An Open Letter to Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin


Dear Secretary Mnuchin,

Congratulations on your recent appointment and confirmation as the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America. Despite your lack of governmental service, I am certain your experience as a hedge fund manager and your tenure as the head of the mortgage securities department at Goldman Sachs will serve you well in your new position.

I realize you are a very busy man, so I truly appreciate your patience in taking the time to read this letter. Let me begin by quickly telling you a bit about myself. I am currently a professor of philosophy with a specialty in ethics and war at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I am a former Marine Corps Officer having served with the 26th Marine Regimental Landing Team during the Vietnam War. Consequently, I feel I am sufficiently acquainted with and qualified to speak both theoretically and experientially about the true nature of war, as well as the importance and relevancy of Ethics and complying with the dictates of one’s conscience.

I think it fair to say that when I enlisted in the Marine Corps Platoon Leader Candidate Program (similar to the ROTC of the other branches of the military) at the young age of seventeen, I unquestioningly trusted my Country’s political leaders believing service in the military, especially during war, to be both a civic and a moral responsibility. As a result, however, of having firsthand experience of war’s horrors, its futility and waste, of having struggled (and continue to struggle) to recover from the PTSD and Moral Injury that is inevitable in all war, of my personal introspection – soul searching – and of my philosophical research, I have realized the lies, deception, and the mythology with which war was (and continues to be) portrayed to motivate young people to enlist. I am sure, Mr. Secretary, despite not having served in the military yourself, you can understand the awfulness of war and the profound effects it may have upon a participant’s religious and moral perspective. As a consequence of this epiphany, this awareness, I have experienced a complete and radical change in my beliefs, a crystallization of conscience so to speak, that war, all war, is futile, ineffective, and most importantly, can never be morally justified. In what I can best describe as my spiritual journey to awareness, I have been especially influenced by the teachings of such great philosophers and sages as Jesus Christ, specifically The Sermon on the Mount, Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha, Buddhism’s/Jainism’s doctrine of Ahimsa, and Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace.

Further, my military experience and philosophical research has made clear to me that it is both the active combatant and the person not on the battlefield, military and civilian, who supports and finances the conflict who must bear moral responsibility for, and may be psychologically, emotionally, and morally injured by, the killing or injuring of another human being in war. I am not alone in this moral judgment. 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?

Perhaps you are beginning to get a sense of the purpose of this letter, of what my personal history and moral theorizing has to do with you and your responsibilities as Secretary of the Treasury. I am writing to you because I know, to both fulfill a campaign promise and to compensate for and distract attention from the embarrassing defeat of President Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, you along with others in the Administration, are working feverishly to pass “comprehensive” tax reform before Congress’s August recess.

Though I am not an economist, politician, or Wall Street banker, I would like to offer my insights, as a philosopher and military veteran, to aid you in this undertaking, the difficulty of which will, I am certain, quickly become apparent.

In 2016, according to the National Priorities Project, about 23.4% of my tax dollars went to the Pentagon to finance the men, women, and weaponry that enables the U.S. military to fight the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. An additional 13.2% went to pay the national debt much of which was borrowed to pay for war.

As I argued above, I and many other pacifists, have a firm, fixed, and sincere religious and moral objection against both fighting in and supporting war or 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, I urge you, Mr. Secretary, 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 to pacifists, the paying of taxes that support war and the bearing of arms (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.

As I am imagine you are aware, Mr. Secretary, 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 1990’s, 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, recent decisions in what has become known as the “Hobby Lobby Case”, provides a clear legal precedent for Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation. 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 I did during my experiences during war and my research in theoretical Ethics, 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 support an activity and a decision of government which 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 support an activity and a decision of government that violates a person’s (in this case the corporation owner’s) strongly held religious beliefs/moral convictions must have universal application, i.e., must apply as well to all persons not only those who own corporations. Consequently, Mr. Secretary, the Supreme Court has, by once again asserting and now clarifying the scope of the Constitutional importance of respecting religious and moral conviction, 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.

Let me be clear, Mr. Secretary, I am not asking that pacifists be exempted from paying their fair share of taxes. Rather, I am pointing out that the new tax code must comply with Congressional and Supreme Court dictates by guaranteeing the constitutional right of pacifists to freely practice their religion and live in accordance with the dictates of their consciences. That is, the Trump Administration tax reform must recognize Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation.

In addition, Mr. Secretary, 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, your tax reform proposal must include the passage of the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act recently introduced in Congress by 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.

Mr. Secretary, both the Congress and the Supreme Court has spoken and 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 makes clear, the IRS, like Congress, must not discriminate against men and women who wish not only to run their businesses but, more importantly, to live their lives in a manner required by their religious beliefs. Consequently, as Secretary of the Treasury, it is your responsibility to ensure that the IRS act in accordance with the “RFRA as written, and under the standard that RFRA prescribes.” You must heed the decision of Judge Wollman that it is not the role of government, in this case the IRS, 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.” Mr. Secretary, the Hobby Lobby decision has made clear that requiring citizens to act in violation of their religious beliefs, their deeply held moral convictions, and the dictates of their consciences, by paying taxes that support war and the bearing of arms in any form is unlawful. Consequently, tax reform must reflect the determination of the Supreme Court and defer to the sincere religious belief of pacifists that their participation in the military tax process makes them morally and spiritually complicit in the taking of life in war. It is now your responsibility, Mr. Secretary, to ensure that taxes paid by Conscientious Objectors not be used to fund the military.

Thank you Secretary Mnuchin for your patience and for taking the time to consider the merits of my advice on tax reform. I know you are a person of honor and will act in accordance with the Constitution. I look forward to seeing Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation and the Religious Freedom Tax Fund incorporated into the Trump Administration tax reform proposal.

Yours in peace,

Camillo Mac Bica, Ph.D.


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