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Religious Privilege and Citizenship

Here’s another law that privileges religious beliefs by giving believers an opt-out from a generally applicable law, resulting in clear and obvious discrimination against non-believers. Margaret Doughty applied for US citizenship and was asked the standard question of whether she would be willing to take up arms to defend the country. Her reply:

“I am sure the law would never require a 64 year-old woman like myself to bear arms, but if I am required to answer this question, I cannot lie. I must be honest. The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or in the bearing of arms. I deeply and sincerely believe that it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life, and my lifelong spiritual/religious beliefs impose on me a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms…my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God…I want to make clear, however, that I am willing to perform work of national importance under civilian direction or to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States if and when required by the law to do so.”

But that’s not good enough. In order to qualify for citizenship, one must either show that they have a religious objection to taking up arms or agree to do so — even if you’re 64 years old. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency replied:

“Please submit a letter on official church stationery, attesting to the fact that you are a member in good standing and the church’s official position on the bearing of arms.”

Doughty has lived in this country for 30 years but is going to be denied citizenship because she does not qualify for an exemption from a law that could never possibly apply to her anyway because her conscience is not motivated by religious belief. Just another way that we privilege religious belief as though it were somehow more important or real than secular beliefs.

Comments

  1. psweet says

    And notice, from the response, that even the religious exemption isn’t based on an individual’s conscience, but rather on what the church’s official position is!

  2. raven says

    Couldn’t she join the Unitarian church?

    IIRC, they don’t have many problems with atheists and are definitely a peace oriented church.

    I have good memories of them. During the Vietnam war the local Unitarian church hosted anti-war groups. And were harassed continually by the FBI because of it.

    PS: Isn’t this religious requirement unconstitutional? Discrimination based on religion and against Nones?

  3. edmundog says

    The solution to the problem of atheists being treated unfairly should never be, “Well, they should join a church then.” Even the Unitarian one.

  4. says

    I went through that when I en-citizenised, and I’m just glad that I’m a vicious bugger rather than a pacifist.

    They also make you do the post-50s version of the Pledge (not the furniture polish, the other Pledge), I must have been overcome with the emotion of the thing, because I had catch in my throat which gave me a definite inability to say parts of it.

  5. raven says

    The solution to the problem of atheists being treated unfairly should never be, “Well, they should join a church then.” Even the Unitarian one.

    Right. Sure.

    Just tell the US Immigration to stop it and that will solve the problem.

    And religion shouldn’t exist. The US shouldn’t keep electing GOP morons. Creationism shouldn’t exist either. The number of problems that shouldn’t exist is legion.

    Saying something shouldn’t happen doesn’t actually make it…not happen. Here in the real world, we have to do what we can with what reality is.

  6. DaveL says

    But it sounds like her objection is religious in nature – it just isn’t an Officially Recognized Church Teaching. Which is just as bad if not worse, because now instead of privileging members of a religion above those with no religion, it privileges the members of specific religions, and does so by passing judgement on what the bona fide beliefs of that religion are.

  7. raven says

    Give me ten minutes and I’ll have a letter for her from the Church of the FSM (reformed branch).

    LOL.

    I’m wondering what Pagan, Wiccan, New Age, or Deist church letterheads look like? I’ve never seen one but they must exist.

  8. stever says

    We need a test case that could be pushed all the way to the Supreme Court. A ruling that military service (or citizenship itself) constitutes an “office or public trust under the United States” would blow all this Religious Reich shit right out of the water. The end of Article VI is pretty damn explicit: “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” No more twisting the First Amendment to mean that freedom of religion does not imply freedom from religion for anyone who so desires. Of course, if the Court did not so rule, the slippery slope would get a lot steeper.

  9. says

    re: Unitarianism
    I once worked with Phil Katz (of PKZip fame) who was raised Unitarian. His only recollection of Unitarian Sunday school was that they did a lot of arts and crafts consisting mostly of ashtrays.
    Honest!

  10. Scr... Archivist says

    Is there an organized, pacifist, non-religious group she could join, and which would want to help her test this case? They could submit the letter, and if the USCIS accepts it then that is a sign that for this purpose such a group is tantamount to a church. If they don’t accept it, that might be grounds for the group to sue.

    That might be a way around the question of Doughty having or not having standing.

  11. says

    This was ruled on for draft issues a long time ago. Religious positions must only be sincerely held, not official church doctrine and there is no need to be a member of a church. If this goes to court, it shouldn’t hold up long.

  12. Rieux says

    Raven @2:

    Couldn’t she join the Unitarian church?

    IIRC, they don’t have many problems with atheists…

    No, they have problems with atheists. Which is not to deny that there exist a meaningful number of atheist UUs (including the author of the post I just linked to). Nonetheless, there is a significant quantity of religious privilege and anti-atheist bigotry to be found in the Unitarian Universalist Association. And as a result, there are many of us who cannot in good conscience take your suggestion that we “join the Unitarian [sic] church.”

    And I’m afraid that you missed that edmundog @3’s response to you was a statement of moral principle. As a matter of the freedoms of conscience and association, the solution to the problem of atheists being treated unfairly should never be, “Well, they should join a church then.” Even the Unitarian one.

    That is precisely correct, and it did not deserve your sarcastic rejoinder @5. It is deeply wrong—morally and Constitutionally—for the U.S. government to demand membership in a church before affording legal privileges to a person. Do you seriously dispute that?

  13. raven says

    That is precisely correct, and it did not deserve your sarcastic rejoinder @5. It is deeply wrong—morally and Constitutionally—for the U.S. government to demand membership in a church before affording legal privileges to a person. Do you seriously dispute that?

    NO!!!

    What I dispute is that posting comments on blogs actually does anything constructive in the real world.

    It’s wishful thinking at best, magical thinking at worst. Do you dispute this? Actually don’t bother, I don’t really care because I know the answer.

    I did list two constructive suggestions apt to do something tangible in the real world.

    1. Join a church that you can agree with that is CO friendly. My Pagan religion would work but we would have to run it by the members, so far, being a few cats and myself.

    2. This is likely unconstitutional and the implication is that a court case would solve it. Several other commenters have noted that as well. There is a problem with standing here. Can a noncitizen sue the US government?

    If you have any tangible suggestions likely to lead to real world outcomes that are any better, let’s hear them. (I can hear the crickets warming up already.)

  14. Nentuaby says

    “What I dispute is that posting comments on blogs actually does anything constructive in the real world[,]”, she posted to a blog.

  15. says

    If being “willing to take up arms to defend the country” is a requirement for U.S. citizenship, then I guess I don’t qualify, though I was born in America. Funny…when I applied for my U.S. passport nearly 40 years ago, and when I did so on my daughter’s behalf amost 20 years ago, and when I renewed those passports several times, we had to prove that we were born in the U.S., but we did not have to swear to use arms to defend the country, nor did we have to pass some sort of religious tests. It’s as though it’s assumed that all natural-born citizens are willing to take up arms.

  16. timberwoof says

    In my late teens I went to a Unitarian church (I found out about them from a friend … it was the one where a few years ago some pissed-off right winger went in and shot some people). I liked them because of their liberalism and openness to gays. They had a program for their youth specifically so they could establish a history of pacifist belief when it came time to be drafted. They’re basically working within the system.

    But an atheist who joins the Unitarian church so they can get the official letter (from a state-recognized Church) is intrinsically violating the Constitution they want to swear to uphold. That could not work for me.

  17. says

    The question arises out of United States v. Seeger from 1965 and Gillette v. United States from 1971.

    Under the old selection process, a person whose number came up had 30 days to report to his local Draft Board. It was the Board — a group of volunteers representing his local community — that made the final determinations as to the man’s status. These rulings forbade the boards from making religion a requirement for granting the statuses 1-A-O (willing to serve in non-combat roles only) or1-O (unwilling to serve in any capacity.)

    Soon after draft registration was reinstated in 1980 by President Carter, the courts opined (still looking for the case name) that the previous rulings applied only to Draft Boards and not to individuals. That is to say, a person had no constitutional basis for refusing to register for the draft on the grounds of conscientious objection. As long as there are no active Draft Boards in the United States, Seeger and Gillette are effectively moribund. Just as it is constitutional to require every male of the appropriate age to register regardless of conscience, it is constitutional to pose hypothetical questions like this to all persons seeking citizenship.

  18. says

    @ d.c. wilson

    “Give me ten minutes and I’ll have a letter for her from the Church of the FSM (reformed branch).”

    reformed branch?

    Splitter!

  19. says

    Ok, I found a few more cases that are relevant to the question.

    In Rostker v Goldberg (453 U.S. 57 [1981]), the Court addressed the constitutionality of requiring men, but not women, to register. The 6-3 decision held that sole purpose of registration was to collect a registry of names that may be used to fill combat positions if and when the draft is activated. Since women were not allowed to serve in combat roles (at that time), the courts ruled that it was constitutional for men only to be required to register.

    Lower courts ruled several times based on this decision, broadening it to say that the sole purpose of registration was to collect a registry of names, period. Since conscientious objection applies only to service>, and not being listed on a roll sheet, previous rulings regarding conscientious objection did not apply to mandatory registration. I’m still looking for case names, but I get the strong impression that the Supreme Court itself never ruled on the matter: it merely let lower court rulings stand.

    Also of interest is Selective Service Sys. v. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group in 1984, which upheld the constitutionality of denying federal benefits (and under pressure from the federal government, state and other benefits) to men who are required to register for the draft and keep that registration current, but who fail to do so.

  20. says

    @ArtK #24 – Thanks. I knew there were three cases, but I couldn’t remember the third.

    United States v. Seeger held that CO status should be extended to any person whose worldview included a stance of pacifism equivalent to a religious belief, whether or not the person was a member of a traditionally pacifist organization.

    Welsh v. United States expanded Seeger to include any worldview that mandated pacifism, whether or not that view was rooted in religious doctrine.

    Gillette v. United States narrowed the qualifications for CO status to require objection to ALL war, as distinct from permitting combat participation in a “just” war. While not directly applicable to the matter of religion and CO status, it is often included with the above two as Gillette described himself as a humanist and specifically cited Welsh to support his claim of 1-O status on the grounds that his belief was that the Vietnam conflict was not a just war.

    But as stated above, these rulings were given as instructions on how local draft boards should grant 1-O and 1-A-O statuses. Since there are currently no active draft boards in the United States, these rulings are themselves inactive.

  21. says

    Something like this happened to me during the Vietnam War. I applied for CO status. My mother’s family had belonged to a traditional peace church, the Church of the Brethern. As a child I spent most of my free time at a Universalist and then a Unitarian-Universalist community center. At the time, though, I was an Episcopalian. I had lots of information from the Episcopal Church to back up my stance. My blue-collar draft board on the Southwest Side of Chicago didn’t understand what a CO was. I was declined. I could have appealed to the board in Springfield but my draft physical was scheduled the week after local board meeting. I told them that I was gay–I am. The gay psychologist diagnosed me as being “confused” about my sexuality. I was give a 1-Y status. A month later they had the draft lottery. My number was 360. I never worried after that.
    If demanding proof from a church isn’t a religious test, I don’t know what is.

  22. abb3w says

    No-one’s mentioned the (seeming) most directly applicable case of US v Schwimmer… which yes, does look to leave the SCOTUS case law inconsistent here.

    There’s an interesting collection of case summaries here.

  23. says

    abb3w:

    It’s interesting that after you TELLING THEM that you’re gay, the draft board would consider you draft eligible. This happened, what, 40+/- years before “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?

    Well, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the inconsistency of U.S. gummint policy.

  24. says

    Hemant Mehta already sicced the Freedom From Religion on the case; they’ve sent the USCIS a letter, the first shot across the bow. Linky As others have said above, telling her to join a church isn’t the answer, getting the USCIS (and the individual working there who made this stellar decision) to drop this unconstitutional roadblock is.

  25. reddiaperbaby1942 says

    When I was a teenager (in the late fifties) I belonged for several years to the Ethical Culture Society (in New York).The ECS was established specifically as a secular alternative to organized religion, with many of the same social functions (marriages, funerals, groups for young people etc). We had lovely, very serious debates over all kinds of ethical issues, as teenagers are prone to do. I don’t know if it’s still around, or if membership in it would satisfy the bureaucrats, but it sounds as if she would fit in with the group comfortably.

  26. reddiaperbaby1942 says

    Which is not to say, as many commenters have been doing, that in principle there shouldn’t be any such requirement.

  27. typecaster says

    His only recollection of Unitarian Sunday school was that they did a lot of arts and crafts consisting mostly of ashtrays.

    That’s a shame. When I was a kid, the UU Sunday School had some of the best science classes I’d run across. And the high school seniors had a thing called Church Across the Street – either we’d go to a service at other churches and talk as a group to the priest/minister/rabbi/imam/whatever afterwards, or a rep would come in and talk to the class. No holds barred on the questions we were allowed to ask, although we had to be polite about it. This resulted in fascinating discussions, or long awkward silences, depending.

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