Who is a Conscientious Objector?

The government has the power to make people fight a war. But many young men and women have serious questions about whether it is right to take part in war. That may mean that they are conscientious objectors. They may not know the term, or that there is such a thing as conscientious objection to war.

Fortunately, there is a long tradition that is getting stronger as people with all kinds of backgrounds share the conviction that war is wrong. The Constitution gives the government the power to raise an army and people can be drafted to fight. But, there is an established right to conscientious objection dating from before the Constitution which has been recognized during the periods that people were forced into the military.

Often the beliefs of these objectors to war are well thought out, showing study and detailed knowledge. Sometimes their convictions are simple and uncomplicated. Many have their beliefs as part of their religion. Others have come to their beliefs on their own.

They all have a right to have these beliefs in opposition to war and should be supported in them. They are conscientious objectors (COs) whether or not the government says so.

Once people hear about conscientious objection, they want to know what is necessary to qualify as a CO with the government. That process is sometimes hard. The rules are fairly specific (but not always fair). However, if COs are properly prepared, NISBCO believes they will be recognized.

What Does the Government Say?

"Nothing contained in this title shall be construed to require any person to he subject to combatant training and service in the armed forces of the United Slates who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in wsr in any form. . . the term `religious training and belief' does not include essentially politicsl, sociologicsl, or philosophicxl views, or a merely personal moral code. Any person. . . whose claim is sustained by the local board shall, if he is inducted into the xrmed forces. . . be assigned to noncombatant service. . . or shall, if he is found to be conscientiously opposed to participation in such noncombatant service. . .perform ... civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the nxtional health, safety, or interest. . . "-Section 6(j) of the Military Selective Service Act.

What Does That Mean? "Religious"

The statute (above) says that no person "who by religious training and belief is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form" can be required to kill or train to kill in the military. CO provisions like this have been a part of American law since the time of the colonies.

United States courts have interpreted the meaning of religion according to the first amendment of the Constitution. That amendment guarantees the right to practice one's religion and guards against the government favoring a particular religion over another.

For a few years the legal recognition of conscientious objection was limited to those who belonged to religions that believed in a "supreme being." This wording favored certain religions over others.

Earlier, during World War I, the government would only give CO status to people who were members of "peace churches," such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites or Brethren. But, this has changed.

In 1965 and in 1970 the Supreme Court ruled that the words "religious training and belief" must now be interpreted to include moral and ethical beliefs that have the same force in people's lives as traditional religious beliefs.

So, the word "religious" here refers to the nature of a person's training and beliefs. That means that the law considers many sincere beliefs "religious" even if they are not a part of what most people call a "religion."

Now, you don't have to belong to any particular religion to qualify as a CO. In fact, you don't have to belong to any religion at all.

Almost all Christian religions, Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, and many other religions have teachings that support the CO position. If you follow the teachings of a religion, you can use that fact to help show that you qualify for a CO classification. But, remember, mere membership in a religious body does not qualify; a CO claimant must show that he or she personally and truly holds the beliefs.

If you do not follow the teachings of a formal religion you must show the government that your beliefs are like a religion to you and that you hold them sincerely.

To summarize: CO claimants with the Selective Service System and in the armed forces will have to "demonstrate" their moral, ethical, or religious belief in opposition to "personal participation in war." They must also show that their beliefs are sincerely held.

"Training and Belief"

"Training and belief" refers to the source of conviction in a CO. It can include any experience and reflection which leads someone to be against "participation in war." For some COs, their "training and belief" is a lifetime of being part of an organized religion that teaches non-resistance to evil, non-violence, active love for the enemy, or "pacifism."

COs can show the government what their training and belief is by writing down the teachings of their religion, what their family taught them, and what they have done in their life that shows that they agree with those teachings.

For others, "training and belief" can be a significant event or sudden realization of the meaning of their decisions about life. "Training and befief" can refer to books, movies, TV shows, teachers, or speakers which have made you think about whether or not you could fight in a war. It can also be activities that you have taken part in that have had an effect on your feelings about war.

Most COs seem to come to their convictions over time. They reflect on their learning and experience and form a strong commitment to peaceful ways. They grow to hold these beliefs as a central part of their life. They develop an outlook and approach to life that shows other people that they have those beliefs and values.

"Essentially Political Sociological, or Philosophical Views"

The statute states that "religious" as used here does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code." The Supreme Court, however, has made it clear that beliefs that otherwise qualify as "religious" may include these considerations, also.

Essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views cannot be the sole basis for your conscientious objection. They may well be the result of your deep religious or moral convictions against war.

For example, if your only objection to participation in war is that war is an inefficient and expensive way to solve problems, your local claims board could deny your claim because it is "essentially political or sociological."

A philosophical view, here, is a disinterested view to which you have no strong moral or religious commitment. This does not mean that a claimant cannot hold a central "philosophy of life" which can be thought of as "religious." It means that your objection must be so important to you that it really affects the way you live your life.

"Merely Personal Moral Code

"

The law does not accept "a merely personal moral code" as the basis for a CO classification. This is intended to exclude from CO status persons who have nothing but a private, personal preference against participating in war, and who do not feel so strongly about war that it can be said they have a genuine moral or religious basis to the objection.

A person who wants to get out of military service because it is inconvenient or for reasons of "personal expediency" ("it interferes with my school, job, or family plans, etc.") cannot expect to be classified as a CO.

"War in Any Form"

Many, perhaps most people, believe that they should only fight in a war for a just cause. Those who insist that they be allowed to refuse to fight wars that they think are wrong are often called "selective conscientious objectors."

"Selective conscientious objection " uses the "just war" moral teaching and international law to justify some wars and rule out others. Selective conscientious objection is not permitted in the United States.

The current statute says that CO claimants must object to "participation in war in any form." This means that in order to qualify as a CO you must be prepared to say honestly that you would refuse to participate in any war in which you would reasonably be expected to fight.

You cannot say that you could participate in a particular war, but not others. Some COs do think that other people, who do not share their beliefs, should be allowed to follow the orders of the government and participate in war. But no one can qualify who picks and chooses among the contemporary wars they would fight.

Some selective COs believe that the conditions for a "just war" can no longer be met today. By a process of elimination they might qualify as COs under current law by showing that they believe a "just war" is impossible in our time.

Some local boards have tried to trick claimants into seeming to be selective COs by asking them what they would have done if they had been alive during World War II, or other situations.

The courts have stressed that you don't have to know what you would have done in a past war or in some hard-to-imagine future circumstance. If you had been living during World War II, the decision to fight Hitler might have been yours. Or, if you are a Jehovah's Witness you may believe you could be called upon to fight in the final war against Evil.

Neither situation disqualifies someone from being classified a CO. Claimants who are challenged to answer questions about past wars should politely refuse to speculate on what they might have done.

The only conflicts you must refuse to fight are those organized wars in which you might reasonably be called upon to fight in today's world.

Must a CO be Nonviolent?

Although many COs hold absolutely to the principle of nonviolence, to qualify as a CO you don't have to be committed to nonviolence or nonresistance in every situation. The law does not require a conscientious objector to be opposed to all forms of violence, the use of force, police powers, or even to all taking of human life.

It requires only that a person be conscientiously opposed to the planned and organized killing that takes place in warfare. Willingness to use violence against another individual in order to protect yourself or your friends is not grounds for denial of a CO claim.

Alternative Service or Noncombatant Service

Even though conscientious objectors are not drafted to kill in the Army they still must serve the country.

The law provides for two different forms of conscientious objector service. The difference depends on whether or not COs are willing to accept service in the Army that does not require them to carry weapons.

Noncombatants (classified 1-A-O) serve in the Army without using weapons or handling ammunition. They are not trained to use weapons. Noncombatants have usually served in the medical corps.

COs who are opposed to any military service are classified 1-O. When they are ordered to alternative service they are reclassified 1-W. Alternative service workers (ASWs) do "civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest.

Many of these alternative service workers find their own jobs for approval by the Selective Service System. In the past, many COs worked in hospitals and in programs operated by religious organizations.

Persons requesting CO status while in the military must request either discharge or transfer to noncombatant duty. Upon discharge, if they are subject to the draft, they will be classified 1-O-S. Those who have not completed their service obligation may be liable to alternative service for the uncompleted portion of military service only if they are drafted at a later time.

Other Types of COs

Nuclear Pacifists

: There is a growing number of people whose consciences would not permit them to participate in a nuclear war, or what they believe would become a nuclear war. Some nuclear pacifists become opposed to all war because, according to their belief, all wars fought by the major powers could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

At this time the law does not recognize nuclear pacifists (a form of selective objection) as conscientious objectors. Some nuclear pacifists might qualify on the ground of their opposition to all war. Current policy in the armed forces is to reassign persons who have moral reservations about handling or firing nuclear weapons.

Noncooperators

: Some people will not cooperate with the conscription system. They are conscientiously opposed to participation in war and they conclude that the conscription system furthers war.

Many of them refuse to register for the draft. Others, having already registered, have stopped complying with the requirement to keep Selective Service informed of a change of address. (There is no legal process for "unregistering")

The Selective Service System does not recognize conscientious objection to participation in the conscription system, even though the draft, itself, serves the purposes of war.

Registration for the draft was begun in 1980 to "send a message" to the Russians. The Director of Selective Service called it a "weapon in our arsenal like a bomber or missile;" Others have valued it because they believe it helps "deter" the enemy from attacking us.

Conscientious objection is not acknowledged by the government at registration. Nor are COs allowed to decide not to register.

In previous periods of conscription, too, many refused to cooperate. During World War II over 5,000 went to prison for their beliefs.

In the first six years of the current draft registration hundreds of thousands of people did not register, but only twenty nonregistrants were brought to court. All but one of them had been open about their nonregistration and many of them wrote to Selective Service explaining their beliefs.

The maximum possible sentence for draft violators is now five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Of those finally convicted for nonregistration, most have served short sentences, been ordered to do community service, been put on probation, and/or paid fines of $10,000 or less.

Nonregistrants are denied federal aid for education and job training, and are barred from most employment with the federal government. Some states have enacted similar provisions. A few colleges and religious bodies have arranged to provide assistance to make up for these penalties. A national Fund for Education and Training (FEAT) has been initiated to supplement these programs or provide them where they are not available to individuals. Write to NISBCO for information about the fund.

Dealing with Selective Service

Until a draft begins Selective Service will give no opportunity for COs to be classified or to learn the details of how they will be classified. Any attempt to officially register your personal convictions in advance will be rejected.

The classification rights for COs are protected by the statute and court decisions. Nevertheless, the process for deciding conscientious objector claims has a bias against COs. While the System expects to reject most claims, it is NISBCO's view that most claims are rejected because COs are not properly prepared.

NISBCO believes that most CO claims can be recognized. However, because many local boards do not follow the law, COs whose claims are rejected must go to court to be recognized. NISBCO also believes that SSS will eventually be forced to bring its practices into conformity with the law.

The draft would begin after Congress authorized it and the President ordered it to start. A draft "lottery" would be held in which everyone born in a particular year would have their birthday matched up with a "lottery number."

Draft registrants who become twenty in the current calendar year would be called first, beginning with those with the lowest lottery numbers. The first draftees would have only ten days before they must appear for a physical examination and induction.

Those who want CO or other classifications must notify the area Selective Service office by submitting Form 9 before their induction day. They may also be required to submit to an Army physical and mental examination before their CO claims can be heard. COs will document their claim using Form 22 and supplementary materials and letters of support.

The claimant must appear at a local board hearing scheduled on a ten day notice. Up to three witnesses may speak in support of your claim, and additional information may be supplied beyond the written submissions.

The registrant may have an advisor present, but no recordings or word-for-word transcripts of the hearing may be made. If the claim is denied, the local board must tell you why, but "any basis in fact" can be used to deny. A denial of the claim can be appealed.

CO claimants can prepare themselves to have their claims accepted by using the written materials supplied by NISBCO. We recommend that COs also get individual help from local draft counselors, their religious organization, or from counselors at NISBCO.

Registrants planning to claim conscientious objector status should keep records of their actions and writings which show what they believe about war. Keep a file of everything you send to and receive from the Selective Service System, including notes of conversations, and copies of all forms and information submitted, including the original registration at age eighteen.

Keeping a second set of this information with a trusted advisor may also make sure the file is available when it is needed. (NISBCO keeps such files as do draft counselors and religious advisors.)

If You Need Information or Help

Write or telephone NISBCO. We will help you and put you in touch with other sources of information. If you are a member of a religious body, ask a sympathetic priest, minister, rabbi, or other religious leader.

Many religious bodies are providing information for their members who are conscientious objectors, and maintain their own registry of conscientious objectors. Many are members of NISBCO. We can help you get in touch with the right religious office.

Many cities and towns throughout the country have draft and military counseling organizations. NISBCO can also refer you to local counselors and attorneys. The American Friends Service Committee and CCCO (an agency for draft and military counseling) have regional offices. For current addresses of these offices, contact NISBCO.

Selective Service has a free pamphlet, Information for Registrants, which must be requested from SSS National Headquarters, Washington, DC 20435. Make sure the pamphlets and other information you consult are up-to-date.

Newsletter

To keep abreast of developments affecting COs, read the Reporter for Conscience Sake, NISBCO's monthly newsletter. The Reporter includes news of the religious peace community, what to expect from Congress, draft counseling information, book reviews and other resources, as well as news about military counseling.

The Reporter is sent to NISBCO supporters who contribute $20 or more per year. (Most of NISBCO's income comes from individuals who want to support the witness of conscientious objectors and share the goals of NISBCO to defend and extend their rights.)

For more literature and information write for NISBCO's complete literature order form.

Glossary of Unfamiliar Terms

Claimant: Someone who submits a "claim" to the Selective Service System to qualify for a classification other than "available for military service."

Conscription: The process of requiring an individual to give military service for a specified period. The common term is "the draft."

Selective Service System: The U.S. Government agency that administers the draft law. It has draft boards ("local claims boards") made up of volunteers who decide claims for conscientious objection, hardship and ministerial deferments and exemptions. There is also an appeal board system, and provison for other exemptions and deferments that are decided by employees of the system.

Selective Service's Washington, DC address is: Selective Service System, National Headquarters, Washington, DC 20435. For information on an individual's draft status you can telephone: 708-688-2576.

Draft Law: The set of statutes passed by Congress, the regulations, and the decisions in court cases interpreting them which together govern both how the Government is supposed to act and how people subject to its authority are to act.

Statute: The Military Selective Service Act, which was last completely revised and enacted in 1971, but has been amended since then. This law defines the government's authority to draft people.

Regulations: The actual rules that govern the procedures and the rights under which the draft takes place. Both SSS and the persons subject to the law have their rights and responsibilities spelled out under these regulations. They have to be published for public comment to allow input by those who are affected before they can become effective by formal promulgation, the action of making them official. You can get a copy of the regulations by writing to NISBCO.

Procedures: The administrative instructions given to employees and volunteers in the Selective Service System. They are more detailed than the regulations, and say when notices are to be sent, how the offices are to be located, what the forms are like, and other detailed administrative information, some of which affects the rights of individuals who are controlled by the System. The complete set of procedures is in a publication called the Registrants Information Management System Manual. The RIMS manual can be ordered from SSS National Headquarters for $7.00.

Moral and Ethical Beliefs: Beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad behavior. The Supreme Court has decided that these beliefs qualify as a basis for conscientious objection.

Additional NISBCO materials on conscientious objection

:

What Do I Believe About War?

(.30 each or .20 each for ten or more)

Letters of Support

(.30 each or .20 for ten or more)

Conscription Developments/CO Packet

($4)

Conscientious Objectors and the Draft

($1.25)

Advice to COs Facing Draft Registration

(.20 or .10 for ten or more)

NISBCO Draft Counselor's Manual, including first year of periodic updating service.

($25)

NISBCO

National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors
1830 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009
202-483-2220