Last summer, 64-year-old Margaret Doughty was denied citizenship in America because she was an atheist.
The issue involved the part of the citizenship application that asked if she would “take up arms in defense of the United States.” Doughty had answered:
… 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…
This was basically a conscientious objection to fighting based on her moral beliefs. But the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told her that “conscientious objections” had to be made on religious grounds, not moral ones.
After a lot of media attention, and with the help of Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Doughty’s status was quickly changed:
“This Service hereby withdraws the request for evidence (RFE) issued on June 7, 2013. This Service accepts your detailed statement in satisfaction of the information requested by the RFE. Your application for naturalization has been approved.”
You’d think, after all that, that this sort of story wouldn’t happen again. Unfortunately, it has, this time in California.
Adriana Ramirez answered the question about bearing arms in a way that was nearly identical in attitude to Doughty (italics hers):
As a woman in my mid-30’s, I understand that it is unlikely that I will ever be asked to take up arms to defend this country. I could have easily checked ‘yes’, sealed the envelope, and sent it out. But checking ‘yes’ on Q36-38 would be a betrayal of everything I have stood for from a very early age. I have strong and sincere moral convictions against arms and killing people.…
I co-founded a journal focusing on non-violence, and have worked ever since to build the foundations of peace. If I were to sign the oath as it is, I would be withholding important information about who I am, only for the benefits of citizenship… Therefore, I prefer to truthfully present my moral objection to this portion of the oath… — as [well] as to the phrase ‘so help me God’… since I don’t hold such religious beliefs — while solemnly affirming my commitment to this country and the enduring principles that it was founded upon, including justice, equality, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.
My moral conviction towards peace and against violence, which contradicts these questions in the oath for citizenship, has been mirrored by many great thinkers and leaders throughout history, from Martin Luther King, to Einstein, to Gandhi and many others. Without their strong convictions and unwavering position on them, the world today would be a very different place. And I think that not compromising my convictions of non-combatancy is equally important. The renowned spiritual teacher and author Jiddu Krishnamurti once wrote: “To bring about peace in the world, to stop all wards, there must be a revolution in the individual, in you and me…To put an end to sorry, to hunger, to war, there must be a psychological revolution and few of us are willing to face that… Peace will come only when you yourself are peaceful.”
My commitment to non-combatancy is based on deep moral conviction. Accordingly, I respectfully request that the U.S. government honor its statutory exemption and allow me to take an alternate affirmation.
The USCIS didn’t care about any of that. In their rejection letter, they wrote:
… you submitted a notarized statement, citing deep moral convictions as the basis for your unwillingness to take the full oath of alligence [sic]. Applicants for naturalization seeking an exemption from parts of the oath of alliegence [sic] must be based on religious training and belief: as defined by Section 337 of the INA… [Y]our unwillingness is not based on religious training and belief.
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center is representing Ramirez and wants the USCIS to reverse course immediately:
“There is no legal basis to deny a citizenship application because one’s ethical values are secular,” said Appignani Legal Center attorney Monica Miller. “The letter is meant to clarify the mistake being made by officials at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’s San Diego office so that the application process can move forward.”
It shouldn’t have happened the first time and it sure as hell shouldn’t be happening again. When will the USCIS make it clear to employees that secular ethics cannot be used as a barrier to citizenship?