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United States v. Seeger

380 U.S. 163 (1965)


Facts of the Case:

This case involved the application of the Universal Military Training and Service Act which exempted people from military service if their religious training or belief makes them opposed to such service. It defined appropriate training or belief as “an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but [not including] essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code." One person involved in the suit believed in a “supreme reality” while another believed in a “universal reality”. Neither of these were included in the class of beliefs covered by the Act. They claimed that the law unfairly did not exempt non-religious conscientious objectors and that it discriminated between different forms of religious beliefs.



Decision:

In a unanimous opinion, the Court allowed those people with general theistic belief systems to be declared conscientious objectors.


Majority Opinion: (Justice Clark)

The decision must be based on the definition of “Supreme Being” and determine whether it includes the theism that the parties involved espouse. Specifically, the intent of Congress in the wording of the language must be determined. The use of the term “Supreme Being” appears to have been used to distinguish religious beliefs from social, political, or philosophical beliefs which are not allowed to be used for conscientious objections. The statements of a variety of theologians support the notion that religious belief encompasses a variety of interpretations of reality. The question to be asked to assess which beliefs are considered religious is, “It is essentially an objective one, namely, does the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?” Weight must be given to the claims of individuals when determining whether their beliefs are religious.



Significance:

This decision establishes an expansive definition of what constitutes religious-type beliefs. Provided that the belief is not strictly personal and the person claims that the beliefs serve the same function as a traditional religious belief, the state should recognize its validity. As a result, when applying for status as a conscientious objector, believers in nontraditional variances of monotheism are offered the same rights as people of traditional faiths.



  

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