We Must Protect Conscience from War

By Duane Shank 01-30-2012
Conscientious objectors rally in Germany. Image via Getty Images.

Peace activists support Iraq war veteran and now conscientious objector Agustin Aguayo. Photo by Getty Images.

One of the U.S. Constitution's difficult balances is found in the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

What happens when those two values conflict?

That is the issue with the controversy over whether religiously-affiliated organizations should be required to offer free coverage for contraception in health insurance plans made available to employees. Those opposed — most notably Catholic organizations — claim that this requirement would violate their freedom of conscience. Those who support it claim that exempting religiously-affiliated organizations would establish a religion over the rights of individuals.

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, recently issued a statement saying he is deeply disappointed in the federal decision on contraception.

“Moving forward, we call for a national dialogue among religious groups, government and the American people to reaffirm our country’s historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty,” he wrote.

As that dialogue proceeds, I pray that the “respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty” also includes those of us whose conscience forbids us  from paying for war.

I am a Christian pacifist who was raised in the Mennonite Church. I remain affiliated with it and its values. Our confession of faith teaches: 

“As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service. The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us to love enemies, to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to practice right relationships, to rely on the community of faith to settle disputes, and to resist evil without violence.”

I believe that. Yet my religious freedom of conscience (as well as that of Mennonite institutions and organizations), is violated when we are required to pay for war through federal income tax, nearly half of which goes to prepare for and wage war. Under threat of prison, pacifists are required to have taxes withheld from their salary, and the church or church-related organizations that hire them are required to submit those taxes to the IRS. 

Just as some religious organizations and individuals object to their taxes paying for contraception or abortion, being forced to pay for war is also a violation of religious freedom and conscience. But there is a solution.

Since 1971, the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund has been working for legislation that would allow persons opposed to paying for war to have their tax payments placed in a trust fund that would be spent for non-military purposes only.

The legislation has been re-introduced in the current Congress by Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) and five co-sponsors as H.R. 1191. The text of the bill can be read at "The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill, H.R. 1191."

Our country was founded on the principle of respect for religious conscience. Let’s work to ensure that all religious conscience is respected.

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners. Follow Duane on Twitter @DShankDC.

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