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No. 4, July 21 - August 4, 1967, p. 8
Steve Nelson: Legal Hang-ups

he draft is still a bum trip.

Of course, it always has been. But for a time this spring it appeared that things might improve. Even Lyndon and the Capitol Hill Mob seemed to have come to appreciate the need for change. Commissions and committees were established, studies undertaken, reports dramatically released amid the fanfare of the news media. Only one thing was missing: agreement as to just what those changes should be.

The resulting act will no doubt be remembered as a classic case of Congressional ineptitude and inertia. Few changes were made, most of them only serving to make matters worse. Essentially, the system as it will now operate guarantees deferments for full-time undergraduates until they obtain their degree or reach twenty-four, whichever comes first. Then they become prime material for the draft along with those in the prime age bracket. The President is authorized to order that the youngest be drafted first, but probably for the next year the present practice of taking the oldest short of twenty-six and working down will be continued.

The most significant changes were made with regard to conscientious objectors. Somehow, the concept of opposition to war, whether on religious, moral, or political grounds (rather nice, that mutually exclusive trichotomy), is more than Congress seems to be able to cope with. A few weeks ago we were presented with the spectacle of several distinguished members of the House of Representatives urging that the First Amendment guarantees of free speech be ignored in the case of war resisters. We have come a long way. When the House passed its version of the Bill of Rights in 1789, it provided that "no person religiously scrupulous shall be required to bear arms," and prohibited the infringement of the "equal rights of conscience." We have the Senate to thank for eliminating those provisions.

The most basic change in the new law is the definition of a conscientious objector. Under both laws, a C.O. is any person "who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form." However, the prior law added to this the definition of "religious training and belief" as "an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code."

The new law eliminates the Supreme Being clause. Congress hoped that by doing so, it would narrow the definition of C.O. by nullifying the decision of the Supreme Court in the 1965 case of United States vs. Seeger, which held that the Supreme Being requirement was met if a person held a belief which "occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God...." As a matter of logic it would seem that Congress got caught in its own web. As the law now reads, the religious training and belief necessary to qualify as a C.O. need not be characterized by a belief in a Supreme Being. When the Supreme Court gets around to the new law things will probably remain just about where they were after Seeger was decided.

In the application form for C.O. status you are asked to choose Yes or No as to whether you believe in a Supreme Being. Seeger declined to make the choice. For those of you who are also not sure whether there is indeed a He, the advice given in the Handbook for Conscientious Objectors (published in Philadelphia by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors and available in some with-it bookstores in the area -- a very useful little volume) is probably still valid: back off like Seeger did and hedge it.

How religious training and belief is to be defined has been left open to a certain extent. And in the following question in the C.O. form there is room to do your thing in a religious bag.

And besides, you still get a shot at rapping with the local board on this subject. And you had better make it good, because under the new law that is just about the end of the line. Time was when you got turned down by the board (and most boards are really into that), you still were entitled to an investigation and hearing by the Justice Department. This was usually the place where fairness crept into the system. That loophole as now been plugged. The board members will call the shots (although you still can take your appeal within the Selective Service System, a virtually worthless protection). Board members are generally senile mental castrati of a militarist-fascist outlook, volunteers serving their country and their neuroses. Trying to have a serious and intelligent conversation with them on questions of religion, philosophy, and morality, so as to convince them of your sincerity and qualification as a C.O., can only be compared to preaching non-violence to the S-M crowd.

Next: more on the draft, with further discussion as to how the new law affects applicants for a C.O. classification.