Religious Liberty? Hardly.

Historians tell us that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment went through more than 20 drafts, with the Founders rejecting formulations like “there shall be no National Church.” The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The courts have uniformly held that this language not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion or state Church, but also prohibits government actions that endorse or sponsor religion, favor one religion over another, or that prefer religion to non-religion, or non-religion over religion.

In other words, government is prohibited from playing favorites–from either benefitting or burdening citizens based upon their beliefs or lack thereof.

There’s constitutional principle, and then, of course, there’s real life.

A woman named Margaret Doughty, who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, recently applied for US citizenship. One of the standard questions asked of applicants is  whether they would be willing to take up arms to defend the country. According to Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Doughty replied as follows:

“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.”

Seems like a heartfelt and entirely acceptable position to me, but no. The immigration service responded by demanding that she “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.” In other words, unless she can demonstrate an affiliation with an established church with an established position on the bearing of arms, this 64-year-old woman cannot become a citizen.

The official position of the immigration service, evidently, is that atheists cannot have moral objections to killing other humans. (Nor, presumably, can members of churches without “official positions” against violence. If you are a Quaker, okay; if you are a Presbyterian or a Jew, not so much.)

When the U.S. still had a military draft, this same approach imposed a real burden on conscientious objectors who could not claim membership in a pacifist congregation. Eventually, the courts agreed that personal moral positions would be deemed adequate–but only if the individual claiming conscientious objector status could “prove” that he had long harbored such compunctions. Members of religious congregations could simply verify that membership; non-members and non-believers had to provide “clear and convincing” evidence of their beliefs, by bringing in people who would testify to past conversations, letters they’d written expressing pacifist sentiments, or the like.

You might think about that, and about Margaret Doughty, the next time some rightwing pundit whines about the advance of the secular hordes, or the (non-existent )”war on Christianity.”


  1. i hauled out my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and looked up the word “religion”; it includes this definition: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” Atheists hold to their cause, principle and system of beliefs just as any other organized religion does. They are allowed this freedom under the 1st Amendment of our Constitution. Daily Kos posted a petition yesterday regarding Ms. Doughty’s plight which I signed, forwarded then posted on Facebook. They are not anti-God, anti-Bible or against any religion but so-called Christians cannot say the same. This is blatantly evidenced by GOP continuing to force their convoluted belief system down our throats and up the other end by controling the sex life and health care decisions of everyone. I am a Christian but I accept the proven facts of evolution and scientific study of life forms while holding to my spiritual faith that there is something greater than all of us. I know little about Jewish, Muslim or Buddist faiths but accept their beliefs as relevant to their lives as true Christianity is to me and I allow them this freedom and this civil right as protected under the 1st Amendment. Ms. Doughty deserves the same consideration and respect from this government and this country.

  2. Whoever sent that letter from the Immigration office should be terminated immediately and all of their past correspondence looked at to see if others were subjected to this utter b.s.

  3. Wow- Thanks Prof K. What a GREAT example of how things can get so screwed up when people drag out their Holy books to judge other citizens. A legislator in Madison WI recently stood up in session and said “THIS IS NOT YOUR CHURCH” Amen.

  4. Update: HuffPo reported this morning that after the Humanists and Freedom from Religion Foundations threatened to sue, IMS backed down.

  5. JoAnn, I appreciate what you have written (and, as usual, a great blog here), but you generalize as to what atheists believe. The belief in common amongst atheists is that no supreme being exists. Even then, I might get an argument from some who mischaracterize their belief. Your quote from Webster’s contains a key word: “faith.” That word would be anathema to me, and to most atheists I have encountered. I am anti-bible to the extent that the book is an ancient work of fiction that has been used to oppress and kill over two thousand years (in terms of Christianity). When I applied for conscientious objector status in 1974, my mother had me pulled out of class at DePauw due to a family emergency. The emergency was that I had applied for CO status and “there are no cowards in this family.” My father was 4-F during WWII and made money as an adult, white male while others fought the Nazis and Imperial Japanese. Several years prior to my application, my brother “fell” down two flights of stairs the night before he was to be inducted in the draft. My parents paid for several neurologists and, eventually, my brother was given a “pass” on Vietnam (a war fought to profit corporations, not fought for anyone’s freedom and democracy). When I received the draft board’s form, it required 30 or 40 pages of explanation of my beliefs. I wrote a letter in which I simply said (1) I do not believe in killing and (2) I do not believe a board of other people can tell me what my conscience is. My CO app was rejected. My number in the draft lottery that year was 26 (I think). By then the draft only took up to about 2. I’ll blog more on this today at Civil Discourse Now. And thank you, Sheila, for your typically insightful (inciteful as well?) blog.

  6. “government is prohibited from playing favorites–from either benefitting or burdening citizens based upon their beliefs or lack thereof.”

    One needs to look no further than our prison system to see this abuse as they have been taken over by Christian prison orgs, all competing for a piece of the “Faith Based Initiative” CASH!
    “Prison Fellowship Ministries” runs the PLUS program in Indiana and probably others. Than there is Karios Prison Ministries, a raciest all white ministry and their programs. Make no mistake about it one must be “born again” to receive their assistance and assistances one WILL receive, special privileges that include better housing (cells), education, and help with early release.

    As a matter of fact, these religious prison orgs specifically target high profile offenders. Should one of these offenders convert, much effort is given to release them as this action carries much weight with the other inmates, and the more inmates one has in their religious program the more government cash they can receive.

    In Florida this religious prison cash has been traced to politicians pushing to privatize their public schools. Of course only Christian Schools will benefit from this privatization. So what they are trying to do is FORCE their belief on our children from money acquired through programs that FORCE a percentage of an incarcerated population to join.
    With the high incarceration rate of non-violent offenders in Indiana and the control of the Religious Prison Orgs there…it is as if the state is forcing people into Christianity through incarceration. The Dark Ages have returned.

  7. Two Indiana high profile offenders that have benefited from this religious take over are convicted violent offenders and murderers Hope Rippey and Melinda Loveless. They belong (ed) to a program called ICAN. Had they not converted to Christianity they never would have been accepted into the ICAN program as ICAN states that violent offenders will NOT be allowed into their program…except Hope and Melinda it appears, and as long as they are now Christians.

    And this system of releasing violent offenders simply because they convert to a specific religious belief has had drastic consequences. X- Arkansas Gov. and Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee released a violent rapist, Wayne Dumondm because he converted while incarcerated. Wayne actually married one of the Christian volunteers who visits the prison as part of a church group.
    Carol Sue Shields, of Parkville, Mo., was found murdered in a friend’s home. She had been sexually assaulted and suffocated. In late June 2001, Missouri authorities charged Dumond with the first-degree murder of Shields…six weeks after his Governor sanctioned release.

    With these Right Wing religious folks the words “I believe” carries more weight than all the science and psychological studies made on such offenders over years and years. They are a menace to our social structure and anyone assisting such inmates as Rippey and Loveless are a part of the bigger problem…FORCED religious conversion.

    Care to comment Mr. Mark Small?

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