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Three COs Face Prison for War Tax Refusal

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Mays Landing, NJ - August 3, 2005 - On August 8, Inge Donato will report to the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center to begin a six-month prison sentence for following her religious beliefs against paying taxes for military purposes. Donato is one of three defendants convicted by a jury in federal court in Camden, New Jersey, last December on charges of "conspiring to defraud the United States" and "willful evasion" of federal taxes.

The other two defendants, Joe Donato (Inge's husband) and Kevin McKee, were sentenced to prison terms of 27 months and 24 months, respectively. McKee's sentence has been delayed until October due to medical concerns. Joe Donato will begin his 27-month sentence in February, 2006, when his wife is expected to complete her sentence.

The Donatos and McKee are members of the Restored Israel of Yahweh, a small Bible study-based religious society located in Mays Landing, New Jersey. Their founder, Leo J. Volpe, was a World War II draft refuser who left the Jehovah's Witnesses to teach a gospel of pacifism that included refusal to participate financially in the military.  Volpe was convicted in federal court in New Jersey in 1978 of willful failure to file tax returns.  After spending several years in Canada, Volpe returned to serve a four-month jail term in 1983.  He did not change his practices or his teachings after that, and the government did not pursue his followers again until this case against McKee and the Donatos.

During the sentencing hearing, which began on June 17, U.S. Federal District Judge Jerome B. Simandle proposed that the government erase the defendants' past tax liability and allow them to pay a substantial fine equal to that amount or more into the Crime Victim's Assistance Fund. The defendants agreed to this compromise, as it would ensure their money would not go toward military purposes, but the IRS rejected the proposal.

"We would always have gladly paid our full share of taxes if only the government could assure us that the amount we paid would not go to fund war making," said Joe Donato. "The lack of any provision like that forced us to either violate our religion or risk being branded as criminals. At that point, we saw no choice but to honor our beliefs."

Professor Scott H. Bennett of New Jersey's Georgian Court University, a historian who has published a book on 20th Century pacifism, submitted an affidavit to the sentencing hearing stating that criminal prosecution of religious pacifist tax resisters on felony charges is almost unheard of over the last 55 years, and prison sentences are exceedingly rare.

"I am deeply saddened that these gentle folks wound up being the first pacifist tax resisters to be prosecuted and jailed -- possibly ever -- for felony conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and attempted tax evasion, the most serious criminal charges in the Internal Revenue Code," said Peter Goldberger, Inge Donato's attorney. "The IRS has plenty of power to collect taxes without resorting to criminal prosecution.  I look to our government to show more respect for sincere expressions of religious beliefs."

At the end of their prison terms, McKee and the Donatos have been sentenced to supervised release during which they must file overdue returns and pay all federal taxes. The defendants will appeal this decision on the grounds that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1994 Congressional enactment which ensures that the government must use the least restrictive means possible to further its interests when its power infringes on sincere religious exercise.

"This case highlights the need for a way to collect taxes from conscientious objectors that respects their beliefs," said Timothy Godshall, outreach director for the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. "Since 1940 conscientious objectors have served their country nonviolently instead of going to war. It's time that the U.S. allow alternative service for drafted tax dollars." The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund advocates for legislation that would allow conscientious objectors to pay their federal taxes into a fund earmarked for nonmilitary purposes only. Called the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act (H.R. 2631), this bill has 38 cosponsors in the House of Representatives.

Members of the Restored Israel of Yahweh have planned a peaceful protest on Monday, August 8, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in front of the IRS building in Mays Landing, NJ (5218 Atlantic Avenue). In a released statement, they welcomed participation from others "who share our firm conviction that federal income tax pays for war and being forced to pay it would violate our moral convictions and freedom of religion."

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