Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Where are my First Amendment rights?

Last week, after more than 8 years of discerning, I signed up for the Selective Service.

Every male resident of the United States of America, between the ages 18 and 26, have to sign up for the Selective Service, which will supposedly help in the time of a draft. (This is debatable if the Selective Service would actually help at all in the time of a draft.) If males do not to sign up, they could face jail time or fines. When the government pursued legal action against non-registrants (males who didn’t sign up for the selective service), they were highly unpopular and resulted in more males deciding not to sign up. So, in the early 1980s, Congress passed the Solomon Amendment, which prohibits non-registrants from receiving federal financial aid for college. Since then, there have been more restrictions, such as denying non-registrants access to most federal jobs. Most states have also passed laws denying non-registrants drivers licenses and barring from attending state colleges.

I believe that the Selective Service is a part of war and I oppose participating in war. My belief comes from my Quaker upbringing. In a 1660 letter to King Charles II, a group of Quakers wrote in their first statement of pacifism:

Our Principle is, and our Practices have always been, to seek peace and ensue it, and to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God, seeking the Good and Welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of All. We know that Wars and Fightings proceed from the Lusts of men (as James 4: 1-3), out of which Lusts the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the Occasion of War. The Occasion of which War, and the War itself (wherein envious men, who are lovers of themselves more than lovers of God, lust, kill, & desire to have men’s lives or estates) ariseth from the lust. All bloody Principles & Practices we (as to our own particular) do utterly deny, with all outward Wars, and Strife, and Fightings with outward Weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our Testimony to the whole World.

When I was in middle school, I sent letters to every representative and senator I could asking for them to end the Selective Service. I had hoped that the Selective Service would end before I had to sign up, so I wouldn’t have to decide whether to register or not.

Sadly the law did not change. On my 18th birthday, I thought I would make a stand and write a letter to the editor decrying my position, but I did not. Over the past eight years, I have been a conscientious objector. I have not been able to apply for federal aid for college, apply for state jobs in my home state of Missouri or most federal jobs.

During the past eight years, I started reading the Bible and I am now call myself a Quaker and a follower of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9) I believe that killing people and war is against Jesus' teachings. I know people have other interpretations, but this is how I read His teachings.

I ended up violating my conscience and my religious beliefs and signing up for the selective service because in less than a month I turn 26 and I would be bar permanently from most federal jobs. I found that I have been silent about being a conscientious objector, so what is the use of holding onto a belief if I am too scared to publicly voice a belief? Also, I hope to one day be married and have a family and I don't want my decision to adversely affect my future family.

I comprised my moral and my religious beliefs against war to comply with this law. Where are my First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion?

For more information about Selective Service and Non-registrants, visit
Center on Conscience and War


Anonymous said...

I'm 40 now (so it's been awhile) but when I signed up for the selective service at 18 I wrote on the form that I was a conscientious objector and that I would not serve. One of the support groups at the time was recommending that as a way to comply with the law while staying true to one's beliefs. Still, I understand the view that complying with the law inherently goes against one's beliefs. If you do sign, though, it doesn't hurt to state your beliefs on the form.

Brad said...

Well done, Greg. I think you bring up good points about the ethical and moral dilemmas of individual beliefs and shared responsibilities in a multi-religious (and I include atheism in this) society. Your points are also at the core of the arguments and objections of many groups who oppose gay marriage as well. Brigham Young University never accepts any government funding for research because government requires institutional policies that could impose on their policies (Wheaton College, similarly, although they recently found a loop-hole in getting a grant).

These things are dilemmas because they lack clarity, and are difficult. The fact that you are thinking about it and writing about it is what more people should do. Let's have a societal conversation rather than focus on the "individualism" of it.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Greg: I had a F/friend who grew up Quaker, and followed old Quakers' advice not to sign up for Selective Service. He came from a well-off and well-connected family so the rejection of grants wasn't a hardship. He earned a medical degree. Unlike you he passed his 26th birthday without signing.

I knew him in his early 30s--too late to sign up. I forget the details, but the law now permanently barred him from working in certain hospitals. Here he was trying to help people and he couldn't because he hadn't signed some papers as an idealistic youth. He was pretty angry at the people who had told him not to sign--people who had long forgotten him and never thought to ask followup questions.

Anonymous said...

My son struggled with this when he applied to colleges. Every college, including the Quaker ones, required the federal aid form (FAFSA) to evaluate other aid. So even if he was able to forgo federal aid, he couldn't receive any other financial help or loans. And filling out the FAFSA automatically enrolls an un-enrolled male in the selective service. For him adding a note to the form was not effective because he knew the info in the form would be entered and extra wording not included. At 18, he was not seasoned enough to make this decision completely sure. It really was sign the FAFSA or not go to college.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I personally regret ever having registered for Selective Service, which I did in 1965. At the time, I thought it was more sensible to register and claim conscientious objector status than to "needlessly" subject myself to prosecution. In time I came to the conclusion that by cooperating with the draft at all I was aiding and abetting the conscription of others, so I refused to complete my alternative civilian service and turned in my draft card. This led to prosecution and conviction but not to prison, as I had expected. At the time, the financial aid leverage was not part of the law, but an actual military draft was still in effect so it was obviously a different situation.

Greg's original position was honorable, and so was his change in position as he approached 26 and considered the possible consequences. It is hard to know sometimes where to draw the line between principled consistency and pharasaic scrupulosity. I don't think it's helpful for third parties to tell a potential registrant that he should or shouldn't cooperate with the law (though I notice that many schools, including Quaker schools, aren't shy about telling boys they "must" register). A far better approach is to listen supportively, to encourage each individual to seek for guidance from the Light of Christ, and then to stay in touch and keep listening.
The experience of Martin's friend is a good cautionary tale. It sounds like he was advised by others to make a decision that he hadn't thought through for himself. It's natural that he's now angry at those who gave him such intrusive advice. I hope, though, that he's even more angry with the federal government for requiring this ridiculous "pinch of incense" on Caesar's altar.

Rich in Brooklyn said...
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Rich in Brooklyn said...
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Rich in Brooklyn said...
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Rich in Brooklyn said...

I apologize for inadvertenttly posting the same comment several times. I was getting an error message from google that made it appear the comment was not posted. Hope I've deleted all the duplicates, now.
- - Rich A-E

RantWoman said...

RantWoman started to reply and the whole item got too long for a comment.

RantWoman's basic point: sure, okay, you registered for the draft. You did a lot of discernment about the Bible and about Quaker history and your goals and the apparent consequences of your choices and you registered for the draft. You made the decision that is right for you.

Maybe, though, that is not the end but only the beginning of discernment and work and conversations about testimonies against war and about traditional Quaker witness such as conscientious objection and how to keep the concept and practice alive in our communities, on the internet, among other Friends and among all our other communities.

Read the whole post here:

William Penn House said...

@Martin, Thank you for sharing your friend's story. Before that story, I had only heard of one story of modern era (e.g. after 1979 when Selective Service registration started again) non registrant and the man seemed to be still content with not registering and feeling like he did the right thing in his mid 30s.

@Anonymous & Rich, I went to a Quaker college and they helped me out with covering financial aid. I know other colleges affiliated with historically peace churches have similar arrangements. I had to write a letter to the college about why I decided not to sign up for Selective Service and they accepted my belief. The school arranged me to have work-study through the school rather than federal work-study. The college claim to cover what the FAFSA would have covered.

I am sorry to hear that you didn't have a positive experience with Quaker colleges honoring your son's belief.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I want to clarify and correct my comment about Quaker schools telling people they "must" register.

My clarification is that I was not talking about Quaker colleges but about Quaker High Schools.

My correction is to note that I carelessly said "many" schools including Quaker schools tell boys they "must" register, but I actually have first-hand knowledge of only one such Quaker school and I hastily generalized from that example. The school in question, the Friends Seminary in New York, posted on a prominent billboard a "reminder" that all males "must" register and made no mention of Quaker sources such as Advice #14 of NYYM Faith and Practice which urge Friends to consider noncooperation.

I regret that I haven't raised this point with anyone from the school. I do appreciate that the school does - at other times - at least make students aware of the possibility of legal conscientious objection.