conscientious objector

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A conscientious objector is a person who refuses to bear arms or serve in the military based on a matter of conscience; rather, on moral, ethical, or religious grounds. In the United States, conscientious objections were raised in response to military conscription (the “draft”). Successful claims of conscientious objection freed the claimant from combatant service and training, usually mandating alternative service for those individuals. Unsuccessful claimants who still refused their call to service could be imprisoned.

Traditionally, conscientious objections in the United States were only accepted from devout members of pacifist religions. Objections rooted on moral, ethical, or political grounds were rejected. Further, as established in the 1971 case Gillette v. United States, objectors could not be selective in their objection. The Court decided that opposition against “unjust” wars was not sufficient; a person had to oppose all wars for a claim of conscientious objection to stand.

Today, the Selective Service System (SSS) has widened conscientious objection claims to include non-religious beliefs. The SSS guidelines for conscientious objectors state: “Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don’t have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man’s reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest.” Those wishing to make such a claim must register with the SSS and testify as to the sincerity of their beliefs. This testimony might include a written statement, verifying documents, or character witnesses. Afterwards, a local board makes a ruling that grants or denies classification as a conscientious objector, which the person can appeal. Successful applicants might choose to serve in the military in a role that does not require weapons. Others might opt for the Selective Service Alternative Service Program. Under this program, the person would–for whatever length of time they would have served in the military–serve in a civilian position that “shall contribute to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest of the United States.”

[Last updated in June of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team