On Thursday, I received an email from Chris Johnson, familiar to readers of this site because he’s been working on a multimedia book about atheists and what gives them joy and meaning in life.
It turned out his 64-year-old stepmother was applying to become an official U.S. citizen after living here for more than 30 years.
Part of the application asked her if she would “take up arms in defense of the United States” — join the military, in essence — and she responded, in part, like this:
… 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…
That bit at the end is what caught the eye of someone at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). They told her that if she had a “conscientious objection,” it had to be on religious grounds, not moral ones.
Her atheism wasn’t good enough.
Her only option, it seemed, was to get a letter from the elders of her church by June 21st to show that her religious justifications against going to war are sound.
I alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation about this issue and attorney Andrew Seidel took quick action, sending USCIS in Houston a letter (PDF) explaining that, while they’re following U.S. law to the letter, their interpretation of it is way off:
In short, this exemption requires only a deeply held belief in not bearing arms or serving in the armed forces. Anything more, such as a requirement to document the belief with a particular church, is a gross violation of the law and the Constitution.
It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a nonreligious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption. This is a longstanding part of our law and every USCIS officer should receive training on this exemption. Form N-400, which the officers gave to [REDACTED], even mentions the exemption and Supreme Court cases above. Either the officers in Houston are inept, or they are deliberately discriminating against nonreligious applicants for naturalization.
Strong letter, but one that attests to how obvious a legal violation this is.
I hope this issue gets resolved quickly — I’ll follow-up when there’s more information available.