Welsh v. United States

Welsh v. United States

A 1970 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333, 90 S. Ct. 1792, 26 L. Ed. 2d 308, held that a person could be exempted from compulsory military service based solely on moral or ethical beliefs against war.

The Vietnam War was an unpopular conflict that depended on the military draft to maintain adequate numbers of persons in the Armed Services. A man who was selected for compulsory military service could be excused if he signed a statement in the selective service form that provided: "I am, by reason of my religious training and belief, conscientiously opposed to participation in war of any form." In Welsh, the Supreme Court ruled that a person did not have to profess a religious belief to qualify for Conscientious Objector status. Under Welsh, a person's strongly held moral or ethical beliefs can provide an adequate basis for exemption from military service.

In 1966 Elliot A. Welsh II was convicted for refusing to submit to induction into the armed forces in violation of federal law, and was sentenced to imprisonment for three years. Welsh had signed the conscientious objection statement after crossing out "my religious training and." He believed that killing in war is unethical and immoral, and the sincerity of his beliefs was not questioned. However, his conscientious-objector claim was denied because it was not predicated upon a belief in a "Supreme Being," which was a statutory requirement for an exemption at that time.

Welsh appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that a draft registrant's conscientious objection to all war must be derived from his moral, ethical, or religious convictions about what is right and wrong and that it had to be maintained with the intensity of more conventional religious beliefs. If a draft registrant's beliefs represent an analogue to worship of God—if they serve as a religion in the person's life—then the draft registrant is entitled to a religious conscientious objector exemption, just as someone whose conscientious opposition to war stems from orthodox religious beliefs.

The government argued that Welsh's convictions were predominantly philosophical, sociological, or personal in nature and therefore were within the statutory exclusion for conscientious objector status. The Court rejected this argument, ruling that this provision should not be construed to exclude those who are opinionated about domestic and international affairs or those whose conscientious objection to participation in all wars is based upon public policy considerations. It concluded that only those persons whose beliefs are not fervently held or whose objections to war are based on considerations of expediency or pragmatism could be excluded from conscientious objector status.In this case, the Court held that Welsh's beliefs met its test and therefore he was entitled to conscientious objector status and a reversal of his conviction.

Further readings

Kohn, Stephen M. 1986. Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Law Violators, 1658–1985. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Cross-references

Conscientious Objector.