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Welsh v. United States

398 U.S. 333 (1970)

Facts of the Case:

Welsh was convicted of refusing to accept induction into the armed forces. He sought conscientious objector status but did not base it on any religious beliefs. He said that he could not affirm nor deny the existence of a Supreme Being. Rather, Welsh asserted his moral opposition to conflict in which people are being killed. He alleged that the sincerity of his belief should qualify him for exemption from military duty under the Universal Military Training and Service Act. The Act allowed only those people whose opposition to the war was based on religious beliefs to be declared conscientious objectors.


In a 5-3 decision, the Court allowed Welsh to be declared a conscientious objector even though he declared that his opposition to war was not based on religious convictions.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Black)

This case has many similarities to the Seeger decision in which a person was exempted from military service because his views were based on a his views of an ultimate reality. The Selective Service identifies two differences between the cases. First, Welsh insisted that his views were not religious. He crossed out the word ‘religious’ on the application form and said his views were formed “by reading in the fields of history and sociology”. The Court rejects this claim because it places too much emphasis on the interpretation by the individual of his beliefs. Although an individual’s assertion that his views are religious is to be regarded highly, the opposite proclamation is not to be similarly viewed. The other distinction the Selective Service identified was that Welsh’s views were political in nature. This ignore the depth of Welsh’s beliefs. Under this interpretation, the Universal Military and Service Act, “exempts from military service all those whose consciences, spurred by deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, would give them no rest or peace if they allowed themselves to become a part of an instrument of war.”


This decision greatly expands the types of beliefs that can be used to obtain conscientious objector status. The depth and fervency of the beliefs are critical to determining which views exempt an individual from military service.


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