Margaret Doughty is a British atheist who has lived in the United States for over 30 years, but unless she joins a church, immigration officials told her, her application for citizenship will be denied. The reason? Doughty is a conscientious objector, which means she is morally oppose to all war, and the oath of citizenship requires that she “pledge to bear arms in defense of the nation.” She refused to do this, explaining:
“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…”
Officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services sent her a letter demanding that she prove her objection to war was based on religious beliefs, specifically by demonstrating she is a “member in good standing” of a religious organization that is categorically opposed to violence or participation in war. “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,” they demanded.
This patently unconstitutional policy seems to have been based on the Selective Service Act, the law governing compulsory military service, which states that:
“Nothing contained in this title shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the armed forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”
But this doesn’t fly, for at least two reasons: first, Ms. Doughty is female, and therefore exempt to the draft in any case (at least, for now). Second, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Seeger (1965) that status as a conscientious objector does not necessarily depend on belief in God or membership in a pacifist sect.
Instead, objection to war can be based on any “sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God.” In Welsh vs. United States (1969), the Court further clarified that, “all those whose consciences, spurred by deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, would give them no rest or peace if they allowed themselves to become a part of an instrument of war” are protected from being compelled to take up arms.
Immigration officials cannot rationally argue it is constitutional to require immigrants to pledge to do something to become citizens that, as citizens, they would be constitutionally protected from having to do. Ms. Doughty has no obligation to join any church or declare any supernatural belief in order to refuse participate in war, and CIS is afoul of established legal precedent in trying to compel her to join a church against her will.
Fortunately, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Humanists Association have taken up her case, and it is only a matter of time before CIS either backs down or gets taken to court. Immigration officials gave Doughty until tomorrow to prove her religious affiliation or have her application denied.
Update: Doughty wins! After AHA’s letter and widespread public outrage, Citizenship and Immigration Services has completely backed down. Congratulations to Margaret Doughty, today a proud citizen of a (still) secular nation.
In an email, CIS reversed itself: “In light of the full explanation in support for your request for an exemption from bearing arms as it relates to the naturalization oath, this Service hereby withdraws the request for evidence (RFE) issued on June 7, 2013. This Service accepts your detailed statement in satisfaction of the information requested by the RFE. Your application for naturalization has been approved.”