Welsh v. United States (1970)

Military Induction
Military Induction. PhotoQuest/Archive Photos/Getty

Should those seeking conscientious objector status under the draft be limited to only those who make their claims based on their personal religious beliefs and background? If so, this would mean that all those with a secular rather than religious ideology are automatically excluded, regardless of how important their beliefs are. It really makes no sense for the U.S. government to decide that only religious believers can be legitimate pacifists whose convictions should be respected, but that's exactly how the government operated until the military's policies were challenged.

 

Background Information

Elliott Ashton Welsh II was convicted of refusing to submit to induction into the armed forces - he had requested conscientious objector status but did not base his claim on any religious beliefs. He said that he could neither affirm nor deny the existence of a Supreme Being. Instead, he said his anti-war beliefs were based upon "reading in the fields of history and sociology."

Basically, Welsh claimed that his had serious moral opposition to conflicts in which people are being killed. He argued that even though he was not a member of any traditional religious group, the depth of sincerity of his belief should qualify him for exemption from military duty under the Universal Military Training and Service Act. This statute, however, allowed only those people whose opposition to the war was based on religious beliefs to be declared conscientious objectors - and that did not technically include Welsh.

 

Court Decision

In a 5-3 decision with the majority opinion written by Justice Black, the Supreme Court decided that Welsh could to be declared a conscientious objector even though he declared that his opposition to war was not based on religious convictions.

In United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), a unanimous Court construed the language of the exemption limiting the status to those who by "religious training and belief" (that is, those who believed in a "Supreme Being"), to mean that a person must have some belief which occupies in his life the place or role which the traditional concept of occupies in the orthodox believer.

After the "Supreme Being" clause was deleted, a plurality in Welsh v. United States, construed the religion requirement as inclusive of moral, ethical, or religious grounds. Justice Harlan concurred on constitutional grounds, but disagreed with the specifics of the decision, believing that the statute was clear that Congress had intended to restrict conscientious objection status to those persons who could demonstrate a traditional religious foundation for their beliefs and that this was impermissible under the .

In my opinion, the liberties taken with the statute both in Seeger and today's decision cannot be justified in the name of the familiar doctrine of construing federal statutes in a manner that will avoid possible constitutional infirmities in them. There are limits to the permissible application of that doctrine... I therefore find myself unable to escape facing the constitutional issue that this case squarely presents: whether [the statute] in limiting this draft exemption to those opposed to war in general because of theistic beliefs runs afoul of the religious clauses of the First Amendment. For reasons later appearing, I believe it does...

Justice Harlan believed that it was quite clear that, as far as the original statute was concerned, an individual's assertion that his views were religious was to be regarded highly while the opposite proclamation was not to be treated as well.

 

Significance

This decision expanded the types of beliefs that can be used to get conscientious objector status. The depth and fervency of the beliefs, rather than their status as part of an established religious system, became fundamental to determining which views could exempt an individual from military service.

At the same time, though, the Court also effectively expanded the concept of "religion" well beyond how it's typically defined by most people. The average person will tend to limit the nature of "religion" to some sort of belief system, usually with some sort of supernatural basis. In this case, however, the Court decided that "religious...belief" could include strong moral or ethical beliefs, even if those beliefs have absolutely no connection to or basis in any sort of traditionally acknowledge religion.

This may not have been entirely unreasonable, and it was probably easier than simply overturning the original statute, which is what Justice Harlan seemed to favor, but the long-term consequence is that it fosters misunderstandings and miscommunication.