A Modest Proposal Regarding Religious Liberty

by Mark Gordon

Religious liberty is on all of our minds these days, specifically the notion that people of faith should not be forced to pay for things that violate their consciences. In the case of the HHS mandate requiring employers to provide healthcare plans that include no-cost contraception, Catholics across the board have objected, noting the Church’s longstanding prohibition on artificial birth control. The Obama Administration’s attempt at resolving the issue seems to have fallen flat, as the bishops of the United States have declared the Administration’s second try to be “unacceptable.’ I’ll admit that I don’t yet have a handle on exactly what the attempted “compromise” really entails, but the central issue apparently remains that religious people should not be required to directly or indirectly pay for things that violate their consciences.

I accept and hold that principle, but I wonder if we’re really prepared to apply it across the board. The chart above, which was recently released by the Archdiocese of Chicago, shows the discretionary (non-entitlement and debt service) portion of the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2012. You will note that three-fifths of all federal discretionary spending is directed to the military. This money is used to pay for the salaries and benefits of uniformed personnel, civilian employees, and military retirees, as well as the purchase of new weapons systems, ongoing military operations, and so on.

But the fact is that there are a great many religious people in this country who are pacifist as a matter of religious conscience and practice. Many of them are members of the historic “peace churches” like the Mennonites, the Society of Friends (Quakers), Amish, or Church of the Brethren. Many others are members of mainline and Evangelical Protestant and Orthodox denominations. And there are many Catholics who have adopted pacifism, a choice the Church doesn’t command but certainly authenticates within her broader teaching on just war (CCC #2306 & #2311). And, of course, there are many non-Christians – Buddhists, Sikhs, and others – who have renounced war in all its forms for religious reasons.

My proposal is that these citizens be exempted from paying the percentage of their federal payroll and income taxes that would otherwise be used to support the Defense Department. In 2012, that would mean an exemption of roughly 60%. Now, I am aware that not everyone agrees with pacifism. In fact, I am not a pacifist,  and so I would not seek the exemption personally. But whether you or I might agree or not is really beside the point, just as it is beside the point in the current controversy over the contraception mandate. The principle being upheld is that as a matter of religious liberty no one ought to be forced to pay for something that violates their conscience. If that is true of government-mandated private insurance policies, and I believe it is, then it is equally true of government-mandated taxes. In fact, more so, because if a Catholic institution refuses to comply with the mandate, it will be charged $2,000 per employee; but if a pacifist, following his religious conscience, refuses to pay any portion of his taxes, government goons will show up at his house and drag him off to prison.

So, who’s with me? Who will stand up for the religious liberty these citizens?