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Gillette v. United States

401 U.S. 437 (1971)

Facts of the Case:

This case involved the issue of whether a person could be exempted from military service because of his objecting to a particular war rather than war in general. Gillette refused to report for induction but claimed that he would participate in wars of national defense or United Nations peace-keeping wars. His reasons for believing the Vietnam War was unjust were based on his "humanist approach to religion" and his deeply held views concerning the nature of human existence. The petitioners state that their freedom to exercise their religions have been crippled because some religions object only to particular wars.


The Court decided 8-1 that Congress did not act unconstitutionally by limiting conscientious objector status to those people who objected to all wars.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Marshall)

There is no evidence that Congress intended to allow people to conscientiously object to a particular war. The legislation in question people to be exempted from service if they are opposed "to participation in war in any form." The establishment claims of the petitioners are weak because there is no discrimination against any particular religious affiliation or belief. There are numerous valid reasons behind the construction of the conscientious objector law, but hindering or aiding particular religious beliefs was not one of them. "We conclude not only that the affirmative purposes underlying [the law] are neutral and secular, but also that valid neutral reasons exist for limiting the exemption to objectors to all war, and that the section therefore cannot be said to reflect a religious preference." To allow objection to a particular war would make it too difficult for the country to ensure a ready military.


This decision limited itself to assessing the constitutionality of the Congressional limitations on conscientious objection. Marshall stated "Of course we do not suggest that Congress would have acted irrationally or unreasonably had it decided to exempt those who object to particular wars." People are now required to become religious pacifists if they wish to be exempt from military service.

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