Conscientious Objection and Religious Freedom
Conscientious objection to military service refers to the position taken by individuals who oppose participation in war on the basis of their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. Such objection can take many forms, such as refusing to serve in combat, register for the draft, pay taxes tied to war allocations, or make any type of contribution to a war effort.
Several First Amendment rulings have considered religious freedom in conscientious objection disputes.
Sicurella v. United States (1955) overturned the conviction of a Jehovah’s
Witness who was refused conscientious objector status. The First Amendment
protects such objectors.
United States v. Macintosh (1931) rejected that the First Amendment’s
protection of conscientious objectors extended to those applying for
In 1965, the Supreme Court expanded the concept of religion that is
protected under the First Amendment in a case involving a conscientious
objector who did not believe in a single Supreme Being. In United States v.
Seeger, the Court moved away from requiring a theistic belief to qualify
for protection of religious freedom.
In a case about religious exemptions from the military draft, Welsh v.
United States (1970) sought to define the meaning of religion under the
In Clay v. United States (1971) rejected a denial of conscientious objector
status to Cassius Clay. “Right to conscience” is protected by the First
In a case that offers insight into how early American courts viewed liberty
of conscience, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a judge’s decision to
remove a juror who opposed the death penalty. In Commonwealth v. Lesher
(1828), the court questioned how a judge could have forced a juror to “take
the affirmation, which in his own heart he was determined to disregard.”
In Gilbert v. Minnesota, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Joseph
Gilbert for criticizing conscription and U.S. participation in World War I.
In Gillette v. United States, the court denied a draft exemption to a man
who refused to participate in the Vietnam War but would have fought in a
war of self defense.
In Girouard v. United States, the Supreme Court held that citizenship
applicants do not have to swear they will bear arms if they have religious
In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to require
university students to receive military training, declaring that the free
exercise clause of the First Amendment applied to states and federal