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Anti war activists shun income tax deadline

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Posted on Thu, Apr. 14, 2005
Outraged by military spending, tax resisters ignore filing deadline

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - (KRT) - Karl Meyer lives in a community of Tennessee pacifists and survives with the help of a vegetable garden and bread foraged from the trash behind a Nashville bakery.

A carpenter who earns most of his income during the 2 1/2 months he works in Chicago every year, Meyer lives simply and tries to keep his income low to avoid paying taxes to the military.

Even when he does earn enough to owe income taxes, as he did last year, he doesn't file, in a protest against defense spending. He has done jail time for income tax evasion, and the IRS once seized his Chevrolet station wagon.

While April 15 presents a necessary headache for most Americans, tax resisters such as Meyer make an annual choice to ignore or defy the tax-filing deadline. Outraged by military spending in general and the war in Iraq in particular, people in this small but fervent movement refuse to pay taxes slated for the armed forces.

"I just don't believe in it," said Meyer, 67. "I believe if we had spent an equivalent amount of money on development around the world, we wouldn't have an enemy out there."

The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee, a New York-based clearinghouse for tax resistance groups, estimates there are 5,000 people who call themselves "war tax resisters" nationwide, said coordinator Ruth Benn.

The number is smaller than the roughly 20,000 peace activists who refused to pay income taxes during the Vietnam era, but the Iraq war has brought greater activity and discussion of the issue among activists than in recent years of peace, she said.

People swarmed the committee's information tables at peace protests around the country last fall and this year. The committee printed 2,000 "Peace Tax Forms" for people to request their money be diverted from the military or explain their reasons for not paying taxes at all, and it had to print another 2,000 because interest was so great. (The forms, of course, carry no weight with the IRS.)

"The war tax resistance movement is a particular sector of the peace movement," said Benn, who estimates she owes $2,091 in income tax for freelance consulting last year but plans to donate the entire sum to aid organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. "As the peace movement rises, so do we."

She gets warning letters from the IRS every year, but so far the agency hasn't gone after her, she said. It is hard to garnish wages from Benn, who is self-employed, but the IRS has the power to seize property as well.

Tax resisters' methods vary. The most defiant don't file at all or send in specious IRS forms as a statement, as Meyer has done. They may claim as dependents the entire population of the Earth or all poor Americans.

Others, often self-employed, do not withhold taxes from their earnings and refuse to write the IRS a check on April 15. And still others take a legal but self-sacrificing approach: making sure their income is so small that they don't have to pay taxes. For most taxpayers under 65 in 2004, that means $7,950 for a single person or $15,900 for a married couple filing jointly.

The IRS in Washington referred questions to its Chicago office. A spokeswoman here declined to comment, saying it did not wish to appear to comment on individual tax resisters' cases. Instead, she e-mailed IRS publications to answer a reporter's questions.

Refusing to pay taxes is illegal, and it doesn't matter to the government whether the motive is greed or idealism.

The law doesn't permit a taxpayer to avoid tax obligations on grounds that he or she disagrees with the government's use of the money collected, the IRS states.

In the 2004 budget year, the federal government spent $454 billion on defense, or 50.7 percent of its discretionary spending (this is often the figure tax resisters use to calculate how much to withhold). When mandatory spending such as Social Security and Medicare are included, military spending is 19.8 percent of the total budget, according to Congressional Budget Office figures.

Tax resisters can be fined $500 for filing a "frivolous return" - including one that deducts taxes for the military - and up to $25,000 if the taxpayer makes arguments in U.S. Tax Court that are deemed to be frivolous, according to the IRS.

In North Manchester, Ind., the War Tax Resisters Penalty Fund has raised $250,000 in the past 23 years to pay fines for resisters, said Julie Garber, grant director at the Plowshares Collaborative, a three-college peace studies program that includes Manchester College. The school is affiliated with the traditionally pacifist Church of the Brethren.

The fund raises money to pay fines - but not back taxes - by sending out an annual solicitation newsletter to people on its mailing list. Last year's newsletter included biographical sketches of four families throughout the country. Their IRS penalties totaled $16,321, and this sum was divided by the fund's 350 active contributors. They were asked to buy "shares" by contributing $46.63 apiece.

Some activists are seeking to change the law to allow for conscientious resistance to paying taxes for the military. Under a bill proposed by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., people could pay the same total tax but be guaranteed their money would go to purposes other than defense.

The legislation would create a "religious freedom tax fund" that would earmark resources for non-military purposes, Lewis said in a phone interview from Washington.

He has introduced the bill in past sessions of Congress and plans to reintroduce it this year, but he admits it stands little chance.

"It comes to the whole question of conscience," Lewis said. "I think the federal government should make an exception for the dictates of one's faith or one's conscience."

Critics, however, argue that the tax system would collapse if people were able to pick and choose which programs they wished to fund.

Timothy Godshall, outreach and development director at the National Campaign for a Peace Tax in Washington, asks his employers to keep his pay below a taxable level.

"Whether I'm the one who's actually fighting in the military or I'm paying my earned dollars to have someone else fight or to have weapons produced, I don't see a moral difference between those two," he said.

Chicago resident Carol Rose intentionally keeps her income below taxable levels as co-director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, which has offices in Chicago and Toronto. The group sends volunteers to areas of conflict to do work such as escorting Palestinian children to school or drawing up human rights reports in Iraq.

Rose said she once surprised a Mennonite church where she was pastor by asking for a salary cut.

Meyer, who long lived in Chicago, tried to stir up a tax protest here in 1985 by filing 365 frivolous tax forms - one for every day of the year. But he said he no longer hears from the IRS.

"They want publicity where people are quaking in their boots," Meyer said, "not where a person says I'm not afraid of you in the least, and I will never pay for the things you are spending money for."


2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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