Margaret Doughty, a 64-year old woman from the UK who has spent the past 30+ years in the U.S., is in the process of applying for United States Citizenship and happens to be an atheist. She is currently a permanent resident running non-profit adult literacy organizations, doing her part to enrich the lives of American citizens. In the process of applying for citizenship, all candidates are asked if they’d be willing to take up arms in defense of the United States of America. Ms. Doughty responded,
“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…my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God…I want to make clear, however, that I am willing to perform work of national importance under civilian direction or to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States if and when required by the law to do so.”
Despite being an atheist, Ms. Doughty was told that any conscientious objection must be based on religious grounds, not simply moral objections. So as someone who was not religious, and didn’t believe in a god, she had no basis for objecting. Her statement has been denied and she has been informed that to move forward in the process she must submit a letter from the elders of her church to prove her conscientious objections are religiously based.
The USCIS has told her,
“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.”
She has been given until June 21st to show that her objection is religiously-based, or her application will be denied.
This is not the first time a non-religious person has raised a conscientious objection to joining the armed forces. In fact, related issues have gone to the Supreme Court and have been ruled in favor of the non-religious objector. In Welsh v. United States, Elliott Ashton Welsh refused to take up arms on a moral objection rather than a religious one. However, under the Universal Military Training and Service Act, one could only object to joining the armed forces based on a religious conviction involving a Supreme Being. The Court agreed that Welsh could be considered a conscientious objector based on his personal moral grounds, and that the exemption being purely religious was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
It appears that Margaret Doughty is facing a very similar First Amendment violation. As a conscientious objector to war, she is basing her position on her personal ethical code rather than a religious one. The response from the USCIS suggesting her claim must be based on religion is the same sort of First Amendment violation we saw in Welsh v. US.
Please join us in spreading the word about this case so that we can fight discrimination against non-believers. Coincidentally, Ms. Doughty’s stepson is Chris Johnson, a New York based photographer. He’s working on a book called A Better Life, which aims to shine a positive light on atheists by featuring 100 nonbelievers who found joy and meaning in their lives without god.
UPDATE: This story has been sent to CNN as an iReport piece. Please help to get this featured on CNN by following the link and voting! Margaret and I thank you!! ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-991030