398 U.S. 333 (1970), 76, Welsh v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 76
Citation:398 U.S. 333, 90 S.Ct. 1792, 26 L.Ed.2d 308
Party Name:Welsh v. United States
Case Date:June 15, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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398 U.S. 333 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1792, 26 L.Ed.2d 308

Welsh

v.

United States

No. 76

United States Supreme Court

June 15, 1970

Argued January 20, 1970

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner was convicted of refusing to submit to induction into the Armed Forces despite his claim for conscientious objector status under § 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act. That provision exempts from military service persons who by reason of "religious training and belief" are conscientiously opposed to war in any form, that term being defined in the Act as "belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation" but not including "essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal code." In his exemption application, petitioner stated that he could not affirm or deny belief in a "Supreme Being," and struck the words "my religious training and" from the form. He affirmed that he held deep conscientious scruples against participating in wars where people were killed. The Court of Appeals, while noting that petitioner's "beliefs are held with the strength of more traditional religious convictions," concluded that those beliefs were not sufficiently "religious" to meet the terms of § 6(j), and affirmed the conviction. Petitioner contends that the Act violates the First Amendment prohibition of establishment of religion, and that his conviction should be set aside on the basis of United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, which held that the test of religious belief under § 6(j) is whether it is a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption.

Held: The judgment is reversed. Pp. 335-367.

404 F.2d 1078, reversed.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, joined by MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that:

This case is controlled by United States v. Seeger, supra, to which it is factually similar. Under Seeger, § 6(j) is not limited to those whose opposition to war is prompted by orthodox or parochial religious beliefs. A registrant's conscientious objection to all war is "religious" within the meaning of § 6(j) if this

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opposition stems from the registrant's moral, ethical, or religious beliefs about what is right and wrong and these beliefs are held with the strength of traditional religious convictions. In view of the broad scope of the word "religious," a registrant's characterization of his beliefs as "nonreligious" is not a reliable guide to those administering the exemption. Pp. 335-344.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN concluded that:

1. The language of § 6(j) cannot be construed (as it was in United States v. Seeger, supra, and as it is in the prevailing opinion) to exempt from military service all individuals who in good faith oppose all war, it being clear from both the legislative history and textual analysis of that provision that Congress used the words "by reason of religious training and belief" to limit religion to its theistic sense, and to confine it to formal, organized worship or shared beliefs by a recognizable and cohesive group. Pp. 348-354.

2. The question of the constitutionality of § 6(j) cannot be avoided by a construction of that provision that is contrary to its intended meaning. Pp. 354-356.

3. Section 6(j) contravenes the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by exempting those whose conscientious objection claims are founded on a theistic belief, while not exempting those whose claims are based on a secular belief. To comport with that clause, an exemption must be "neutral" and include those whose belief emanates from a purely moral, ethical, or philosophical source. Pp. 356-361.

4. In view of the broad discretion conferred by the Act's severability clause and the longstanding policy of exempting religious conscientious objectors, the Court, rather than nullifying the exemption entirely, should extend its coverage to those like petitioner who have been unconstitutionally excluded from its coverage. Pp. 361-367.

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BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL join.

The petitioner, Elliott Ashton Welsh II, was convicted by a United States District Judge of refusing to submit to induction into the Armed Forces in violation of 50 U.S.C.App. § 462(a), and was, on June 1, 1966, sentenced to imprisonment for three years. One of petitioner's defenses to the prosecution was that § 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act exempted him from combat and noncombat service because he was "by reason of religious training and belief . . . conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form."1 After finding that there was no religious basis for petitioner's conscientious objector claim, the Court of Appeals, Judge Hamley dissenting, affirmed the conviction. 404 F.2d 1078 (1968). We granted certiorari chiefly to review the contention that Welsh's conviction should be set aside on the basis of this Court's decision in United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965). 396 U.S. 816 (1969). For the reasons to be stated, and without passing upon the constitutional arguments that have been raised, we vote to reverse this conviction because of its fundamental inconsistency with United States v. Seeger, supra.

The controlling facts in this case are strikingly similar to those in Seeger. Both Seeger and Welsh were brought up in religious homes and attended church in their childhood, but in neither case was this church one which taught its members not to engage in war at any time for

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any reason. Neither Seeger nor Welsh continued his childhood religious ties into his young manhood, and neither belonged to any religious group or adhered to the teachings of any organized religion during the period of his involvement with the Selective Service System. At the time of registration for the draft, neither had yet come to accept pacifist principles. Their views on war developed only in subsequent years, but, when their ideas did fully mature, both made application to their local draft boards for conscientious objector exemptions from military service under § 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act. That section then provided, in part:2

Nothing contained in this title shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the armed forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form. Religious training and belief in this connection means an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.

In filling out their exemption applications, both Seeger and Welsh were unable to sign the statement that, as printed in the Selective Service form, stated, "I am, by reason of my religious training and belief, conscientiously

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opposed to participation in war in any form." Seeger could sign only after striking the words "training and" and putting quotation marks around the word "religious." Welsh could sign only after striking the words "my religious training and." On those same applications, neither could definitely affirm or deny that he believed in a "Supreme Being," both stating that they preferred to leave the question open.3 But both Seeger and Welsh affirmed on those applications that they held deep conscientious scruples against taking part in wars where people were killed. Both strongly believed that killing in war was wrong, unethical, and immoral, and their consciences forbade them to take part in such an evil practice. Their objection to participating in war in any form could not be said to come from a "still, small voice of conscience"; rather, for them, that voice was so loud and insistent that both men preferred to go to jail rather than serve in the Armed Forces. There was never any question about the sincerity and depth of Seeger's convictions as a conscientious objector, and the same is true of Welsh. In this regard the Court of Appeals noted, "[t]he government concedes that [Welsh's] beliefs are held with the strength of more traditional religious convictions." 404 F.2d at 1081. But, in both cases, the Selective Service System concluded that the beliefs of these men were in some sense insufficiently "religious" to qualify them for conscientious objector exemptions under the terms of § 6(j). Seeger's conscientious objector claim was denied "solely because it was not based upon a `belief in a relation to a Supreme Being,' as required by § 6(j) of the Act," United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 167 (1965), while Welsh was

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denied the exemption because his Appeal Board and the Department of Justice hearing officer "could find no religious basis for the registrant's beliefs, opinions and convictions." App. 52. Both Seeger and Welsh subsequently refused to submit to induction into the military, and both were convicted of that offense.

In Seeger, the Court w as confronted, first, with the problem that § 6(j) defined "religious training and belief" in terms of a "belief in a relation to a Supreme Being . . . ," a definition that arguably gave a preference to those who believed in a conventional God, as opposed to those who did not. Noting the "vast panoply of beliefs" prevalent in our country, the Court construed the congressional intent as...

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