Defining Religion

Author:Ruthann Robson
Pages:877-897
Robson The First Amendment
877
Chapter&Eleven:&DEFINING&RELIGION&
This very brief chapter introduces the “Religion Clauses” of the First
Amendment with an exploration of the meaning of “religion.”
Chapter Outline
United States v. Seeger
Welsh v. United States
Notes
United$States$v.$Seeger$$
380 U.S. 163 (1965)
JUSTICE CLARK DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT, IN WHICH WARREN, C.J., AND BLACK,
HARLAN, BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, AND GOLDBERG, J.J., JOINED. DOUGLAS, J., FILED A
CONCURRING OPINION.
JUSTICE CLARK DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.
These cases involve claims of conscientious objectors under 6 (j) of the
Universal Military Training and Service Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 456 (j) (1958 ed.),
which exempts from combatant training and service in the armed forces of the
United States those persons who by reason of their religious training and belief
are conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form. The cases were
consolidated for argument and we consider them together although each
involves different facts and circumstances. The parties raise the basic question
of the constitutionality of the section which defines the term "religious training
and belief," as used in the Act, as "an individual's 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 moral code." The constitutional attack is launched
under the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses and is
twofold: (1) The section does not exempt nonreligious conscientious objectors;
and (2) it discriminates between different forms of religious expression in
violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. *** We granted
certiorari in each of the cases because of their importance in the administration
of the Act.
We have concluded that Congress, in using the expression "Supreme Being"
rather than the designation "God," was merely clarifying the meaning of
religious training and belief so as to embrace all religions and to exclude
essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views. We believe that under
this construction, the test of belief "in a relation to a Supreme Being" is
Robson The First Amendment
878
whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life
of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who
clearly qualifies for the exemption. Where such beliefs have parallel positions in
the lives of their respective holders we cannot say that one is "in a relation to a
Supreme Being" and the other is not. We have concluded that the beliefs of the
objectors in these cases meet these criteria. ***
THE FACTS IN THE CASES.
No. 50: Seeger was convicted in the District Court for the Southern District of
New York of having refused to submit to induction in the armed forces. He was
originally classified 1-A in 1953 by his local board, but this classification was
changed in 1955 to 2-S (student) and he remained in this status until 1958
when he was reclassified 1-A. He first claimed exemption as a conscientious
objector in 1957 after successive annual renewals of his student classification.
Although he did not adopt verbatim the printed Selective Service System form,
he declared that he was conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any
form by reason of his "religious" belief; that he preferred to leave the question as
to his belief in a Supreme Being open, "rather than answer `yes' or `no'"; that
his "skepticism or disbelief in the existence of God" did "not necessarily mean
lack of faith in anything whatsoever"; that his was a "belief in and devotion to
goodness and virtue for their own sakes, and a religious faith in a purely ethical
creed." He cited such personages as Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza for support of
his ethical belief in intellectual and moral integrity "without belief in God,
except in the remotest sense." His belief was found to be sincere, honest, and
made in good faith; and his conscientious objection to be based upon individual
training and belief, both of which included research in religious and cultural
fields. Seeger's claim, however, 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.
At trial Seeger's counsel admitted that Seeger's belief was not in relation to a
Supreme Being as commonly understood, but contended that he was entitled to
the exemption because "under the present law Mr. Seeger's position would also
include definitions of religion which have been stated more recently," and could
be "accommodated" under the definition of religious training and belief in the
Act. He was convicted and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the
Supreme Being requirement of the section distinguished "between internally
derived and externally compelled beliefs" and was, therefore, an "impermissible
classification" under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
*** [facts of companion cases omitted]
BACKGROUND OF 6 (j).
Chief Justice Hughes, in his opinion in United States v. Macintosh (1931),
enunciated the rationale behind the long recognition of conscientious objection
to participation in war accorded by Congress in our various conscription laws
when he declared that "in the forum of conscience, duty to a moral power
higher than the State has always been maintained." In a similar vein Harlan
Fiske Stone, later Chief Justice, drew from the Nation's past when he declared
that
"both morals and sound policy require that the state should not violate the
conscience of the individual. All our history gives confirmation to the view that
liberty of conscience has a moral and so cial value which makes it worthy of

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