United States v. Seeger
380 U.S. 163 (1965)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)

United States v. Seeger

No. 50

Argued November 16-17, 1964

Decided March 8, 1965*

380 U.S. 163

Syllabus

These three cases involve the exemption claims under § 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act of conscientious objectors who did not belong to an orthodox religious sect. Section 6(j) excepts from combatant service in the armed forces those who are conscientiously opposed to participation in war by reason of their "religious training and belief," i.e., belief in an individual's relation to a Supreme Being involving duties beyond a human relationship but not essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code. In all the cases, convictions were obtained in the District Courts for refusal to submit to induction in the armed forces; in Nos. 50 and 51 the Court of Appeals reversed, and in No. 29, the conviction was affirmed.

Held:

1. The test of religious belief within the meaning of the exemption in § 6(j) is whether it is a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualified for the exemption. Pp. 380 U. S. 173-180.

(a) The exemption does not cover those who oppose war from a merely personal moral code, nor those who decide that war is wrong on the basis of essentially political, sociological or economic considerations, rather than religious belief. P. 380 U. S. 173.

(b) There is no issue here of atheistic beliefs, and, accordingly, the decision does not deal with that question. Pp. 380 U. S. 173-174.

(c) This test accords with long established legislative policy of equal treatment for those whose objection to military service is based on religious beliefs. Pp. 380 U. S. 177-180.

2. Local boards and courts are to decide whether the objector's beliefs are sincerely held and whether they are, in his own scheme of things, religious; they are not to require proof of the religious

Page 380 U. S. 164

doctrines, nor are they to reject beliefs because they are not comprehensible. Pp. 380 U. S. 184-185.

3. Under the broad construction applicable to § 6(j), the applications involved in these cases, none of which was based on merely personal moral codes, qualified for exemption. Pp. 380 U. S. 185-188.

326 F.2d 846 and 325 F.2d 409 affirmed; 324 F.2d 173 reversed.

Primary Holding
A person can have conscientious objector status based on a belief that has a similar position in that person's life to the belief in God.
Facts
Seeger was convicted for refusing to be inducted into the armed forces. He argued that he was subject to the exemption under Section 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, which provides that conscientious objectors need not serve in the armed forces if they have a specific religious training or belief that is related to a Supreme Being. Seeger was a genuine pacifist who made his objection in good faith, but he was denied the exemption because he did not believe in a Supreme Being, since he was agnostic about the existence of God. On the other hand, the root of his objection was based on religious study and faith rather than his personal morals. He argued that the provision containing the exemption was unconstitutional because it required proof of a belief in a Supreme Being.

Opinions

Majority

  • Tom C. Clark (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Arthur Joseph Goldberg

Since there are over 250 religious groups in the United States, Congress could not be expected to specifically cover each of them in this federal law. In general, a conscientious objection is based on a religious belief rather than political, sociological, or philosophical views. The term "Supreme Being" should be interpreted to cover all types of faith, and the defendant's belief system falls within them, so it qualifies for the exemption. However, the statute is constitutional on its face.

Concurrence

  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

Case Commentary

The main inquiry here is whether the nature of a belief is religious, rather than whether the belief is valid, since determining the validity of a belief would lead to inconsistencies and excessive deliberation by courts. However, it may also be challenging to determine whether a belief is sincere or merely an expedient measure.

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