What is Conscientious Objection to Military Service?

Conscientious objection to military service is a firm, fixed, and sincere position taken by someone who refuses to participate in war on the basis of religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. This objection may take many forms, such as a refusal to serve in combat, register for the draft, pay taxes tied to war allocations, or support war efforts in any way.

If the United States goes to war and you or a family member are drafted, you have a few options for fulfilling your duties without going against your religious, moral, or ethical principles. Every service member’s situation is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but you may find the following information useful.

The History of Conscientious Objection

Conscientious objection has a long, international history stemming from strongly held religious beliefs. Before the American Revolution, most conscientious objectors were members of “peace churches,” which taught and practiced pacifism.

During the Civil War, Congress enacted the country’s first military conscription legislation, providing exemptions for anyone who paid a hefty fee. In response to riots and debates about the fairness of the fee exemption, legislation was passed allowing alternative service for members of peace churches.

The alternative service option continued through World War II, with the Selective Training and Service Act passing in 1940. However, exemptions were only allowed for objectors who held strong religious beliefs. Those who based their objections on political, moral, or personal grounds were imprisoned if they refused to serve after being conscripted.

During the Vietnam War, the number of conscientious objection applications numbered in the thousands. In Welsh v. United States, the Court broadened the basis for conscientious objection to include moral and ethical grounds “held with the strength of traditional religious convictions.” This was a win for conscientious objectors. However, in Gillette v. United States, the Court struck down the argument that a conscripted individual could refuse involvement in “unjust” wars without necessarily being opposed to all wars.

Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most famous American to claim conscientious objection to military service. In 1967, he refused to be inducted into the military after being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested and convicted of violating Selective Service laws. In 1971, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction, stating that he had legitimate moral and ethical reasons for requesting CO status.

Registering for CO Status

Today, the Selective Service System (SSS) states the following:

“Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.”

Every new recruit who volunteers for service must sign a statement indicating they are not a conscientious objector. Applicants who were previously granted CO status must sign an affidavit stating they have abandoned their beliefs and are now willing to bear arms and give unqualified service to the United States.

Anyone who is conscripted for military service may seek to obtain classification as a conscientious objector by registering with the SSS and testifying as to the sincerity of their beliefs. In recent years, between 20 and 40 soldiers have applied for CO status annually, which accounts for about 0.01 percent of all active-duty members. Testimonies may include written statements, verifying documents, and character witnesses. Claims of conscientious objection that develop after entering the service are considered.

A local board makes a ruling either granting or denying CO status based on the evidence presented. A registrant may appeal a local board’s decision to a Selective Service district appeal board. If the appeal is denied, but not unanimously, the registrant may take theiri case to the national appeal board.

Serving in the Military as a Conscientious Objector

In the event of a draft, the armed forces can accommodate conscripted individuals who claim genuine conscientious objection, depending on the extent of their beliefs. A person who is granted an exemption for conscientious objection to combatant service (Class 1-A-O) will continue to serve in the armed forces but will not be assigned to training or combatant duties that require using weapons. In other words, they are granted “noncombatant status.”

A person who is granted an exemption for conscientious objection to all military service (Class 1-O) will be placed in the Selective Service Alternative Service Program. This program attempts to match the person with a local civilian employer. The job must be “deemed to make a meaningful contribution to the maintenance of the national health, safety, and interest.” Examples of approved alternative service jobs include conservation, education, healthcare, and caring for the very young or very old. The length of service in the program is usually 24 months, or however long the person would have served in the military.

Defend Your Conscientious Objection Claims

No one should be forced to violate their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs, or face imprisonment. If you are opposed to some or all forms of military service, Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, can defend your rights to serve in a capacity you feel comfortable with. Our experienced military lawyer represents service members in every branch of the military stationed all across the US and abroad. Call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case.

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