What “conscientious” means

Margaret Doughty has decided to become a US citizen – and has hit an obstacle.

…an USCIS official asked Doughty to confirm that, when asked, she would take up arms in defense of the United States. Doughty, who had just been made to swear an oath to tell the truth (as is customary with citizenship applications), felt honor-bound to answer the question…truthfully. She responded that she would be unfailingly loyal to the United States, but that her conscience doesn’t allow her to inflict violence on another person.

The immigration agent explained that the question, in Doughty’s case, was pretty much academic. The United States does not put sexagenarians on the front lines. Doughty, however, felt helpless to change her answer, and the agent told her that was going to be a problem, claiming that the USCIS recognizes only religiously-motivated objectors (Doughty isn’t religious; she identifies as an agnostic).

This is a long-standing issue with conscientious objection: religious c.o. is accepted while non-religious c.o. is not – as if “conscientious” simply meant “religious,” which it doesn’t.

Doughty is appealing to her Congressman, Blake Farenthold, for help with her case, and has been heartened by a letter written by Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel, who let the USCIS know in no uncertain terms that the law is not on the agency’s side. Wrote Seidel:

Either the officers in Houston are inept, or they are deliberately discriminating against nonreligious applicants for naturalization.

Seidel, however, cannot act as Doughty’s attorney, and the applicant has a call in to a local immigration lawyer who might.

Let’s remind each other to keep an eye on this.



  1. says

    There are three relevant Supreme Court rulings when addressing conscientious objection.

    United States v. Seeger, from 1965, held that conscientious objector status did not require membership in a religious organization whose doctrine mandated pacifism. That is to say, one did not have to be a Friend or a Buddhist to get CO status, provided that one believed in a divine command not to take up arms.

    Welsh v. United States, from 1970, expanded on Seeger and held that conscientious objection could be based in non-religious grounds, including humanism.

    Gillette v. United States, from 1971, slightly narrowed the grounds for CO status by requiring conscientious objection to ALL war. You have no right to CO status if you are willing to take up arms in a just war but not an unjust war, regardless of where one derives the distinction between just and unjust conflict.

    These decisions have never been overturned and remain in force. HOWEVER, the federal courts ruled back in the early 1980s that these decisions were given to local draft boards who, at the time, were the sole arbiters of who got and did not get status as a conscientious objector. The last draft boards in the US were disbanded in, I believe, 1975; since then, these rulings have been moribund.

    The 1981 ruling Rostker v Goldberg held that, among other things, registration for the draft was merely the collection of names and not a draft in and of itself: as such, there was no conscientious objection exemption from registration (the main point of the ruling held that, because there was no draft, placing the burdens and penalties of registration on men and not women constitutional.)

    In short: no government agent can require a religious basis for conscientious objection IN THE MATTER OF CONSCRIPTION, and being required to sign papers or provide information is not conscription.

    Until and unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise, the precedent is established and clear. Yeah, it sucks, but right now the USCIS does not appear to be doing anything illegal.

  2. says

    Thanks, I sent it over via facebook (maybe remove the link now to maintain her privacy? up to you natch). This case is just so utterly ridiculous. The agent should be disciplined for putting this poor woman through it.

  3. says

    My sister is an outspoken atheist and nonviolent type who got her US citizenship a couple of years ago. I asked her if she got asked this question and what she said, she replied “Yeah I did, I was thinking along the lines of a zombie war when I answered.” So that’s another loophole for other applicants maybe. 😉

    On a more serious note, I think Margaret’s situation has been positively resolved now so, yay!

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