1965 March 8

Supreme Court Expands the Right of Conscientious Objection to War


In United States v. Seeger, decided on this day, the Supreme Court expanded the right of conscientious objections to military service. A unanimous Court embraced a broader definition of “supreme being” to include a “sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God” of people who adhered to traditional religious faiths and who had been granted conscientious objector status in the past. (Daniel Andrew Seeger, the plaintiff, is no relation to the folk singer Pete Seeger.)

The very limited scope of the right to conscientiously object to participation in war had been one of the major civil liberties crises during World War I. And during World War II, COs who were convicted and sent to prison staged hunger strikes to protest censorship and racial segregation in their prisons.

With the advent of the all-volunteer army in 1973, the issue of conscientious objection was not relevant in the two wars in Iraq (1992, 2003) and the war in Afghanistan (2001). The draft still exists, however, and men between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register, so it is at least possible there could be a draft — and conscientious objectors — at some point in the future.

Learn more about Daniel Seeger: Peter Irons, The Courage of their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court (Ch. 7) (1988)

Learn more: Lillian Schlissel, Conscience in America: A Documentary History of Conscientious Objection in America, 1757–1967 (1968)

Learn about conscientious objectors in World War II (the “Good War”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loeayUFi3B8

Learn about the rights of COs today at the GI Rights Hotline here.

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