|Providence Hearing Report
by Natalie & Noah Merrill
A Public Hearing on H.R. 2631, the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill, took place on Monday, December 12, 2005 from 9:00 to 11:00am in the State Room of the Rhode Island State House in Providence, RI.
More than 25 people participated in the hearing, held in a spacious and elegant room used by Rhode Island’s governor for state press conferences and receptions. At a podium bearing the Seal of the Governor of Rhode Island, and under a painting of George Washington, witnesses giving testimony in support of the Peace Tax Fund shared in a morning of hope and fervent petition.
The presentation was audio- and video-recorded, and excerpts will be available to the public soon. The complete video recording will be presented to each of Rhode Island’s Senators and Congressmen as part of follow-up efforts seeking a formal response and their endorsement of the Peace Tax Fund legislation.
The hearing was convened by Keith Harvey, Executive Director of the American Friends Service Committee in New England. Marian Franz, Executive Director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund, presented the Bill, and outlined its provisions. She was followed by presentations grouped into categories by subject matter:
Voices of Faith, which included remarks by representatives of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic and Quaker communities. In the words of Peter Michaelson, an Episcopal priest, “…passage of this measure will relieve the IRS of a duty which amounts to religious persecution.”
They were followed by Rhode Island Voices of Conscience, including local war tax resisters and those caught in what Marian Franz described as the “terrible either/or” of choosing obedience to one’s God over obedience to one’s country. Supporters of the effort spoke of refusal to pay telephone taxes, or property seizures, of attached wages, and of the steadfast refusal to behave dishonestly in the face of what was described as “ruthless persecution” by agents of the IRS.
Edward Baker, professional historian and Clerk of Westerly Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), presented testimony on the History of Religious Freedom in Rhode Island, beginning with the colony’s foundation by Roger Williams, himself a Baptist and a religious refugee from England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He detailed the Quaker legacy of governance and influence in the State, including the several decades in the 1700’s during which more than half of the Rhode Island population were members of the Religious Society of Friends. He cited Senator Lincoln Chafee’s (R-RI) recent work to recognize Newport, Rhode Island as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a claim based primarily on Newport’s centrality in establishing the foundation of tolerance and religious freedom on which the United States was founded. Edward Baker brought the depth and breadth of the State’s legacy of Freedom of Conscience into the Hearing, and helped this history speak to all of us in the present day.
The testimony proceeding addressed Legal Considerations, presented by Carl Bogus, Professor of Law at Roger Williams University School of Law, whose comments began and concluded with the following statements:
“I have been given what is perhaps the easiest task at this hearing, the task of addressing the legal obstacles to passage of this legislation. It is the easiest task because there simply are none.”
And in closing:
“If this legislation has any national effect, besides increasing tax revenue, it may give small numbers of people a slightly higher soapbox on which to advocate their notions of the limits of force, and the principles and practicalities of nonviolence. It seems to me that there are always enough voices supporting the opulent support of the military-industrial complex. I cannot see how the country would be harmed if voices for peace were slightly louder.”
David Segal, Minority Leader of the Providence City Council, spoke about the imbalances in Local and Federal Spending Priorities that place violence and armaments over human needs, in Iraq and Providence. He highlighted the “invisible” drains on local resources brought on by military deployments and the continued federal reliance on force as a solution to conflicts foreign and domestic.
The hearing closed with testimony from humanitarian workers presenting the Human Cost of War.
Laura Wood, a teacher of resettled refugees at the International Institute of Rhode Island, presented the following witness to her experiences:
“I have stood and felt entirely helpless to say anything of worth to mother after mother, sleepless with worry, exhausted in prayer, wondering where her missing children are – praying that they are alive, that they are safe and in good hands, dreaming of a time when she may see them again. I have tried to think of ways to stress the importance of completing homework or the importance of budgeting to a classroom of people who have watched their husbands killed, their houses burned, their daughters raped. This is war…war is murder and I will not buy it.”
Noah Merrill, Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in Southeastern New England, highlighted the suffering of the more than 1 million Iraqis who are refugees in Jordan and the comparable number in Syria, based on a recent fact-finding trip to the region. He testified to the continuing lack of critical services in Iraq, the resurgence of epidemic deaths from preventable diseases, and the sharp increase in human rights abuses by US-backed security forces under US occupation brought on by the 2003 invasion.
These unsettling testimonies gave the hearing’s closing a weight and power that it deserved. In keeping with Quaker tradition, Keith Harvey called the assembled group into several moments of silent meditation and worship, and asked us to rededicate ourselves the recognition of this crucial right of religious freedom and conscience, for ourselves, and for the world. As we waited together in silence, the sounds of a children’s choir in another part of the State Capitol rose in the hearing room—
“Do you hear what I hear….”
A song of anticipation, of faith in a dark time.
A message of Hope for a suffering world, and for a people who have been waiting a long time for liberation.