Options available to conscientious objectors


Editor’s note: This is the final part of a six-part series on conscription (the draft).

In February 2019, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled that male-only conscription registration breached the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, overturning the previous ruling on the grounds that the policies of the armed forces regarding women had changed significantly, such that they can now be used interchangeably with men. In a case brought by nonprofit men’s rights organization the National Coalition for Men against the U.S. Selective Service System (SSS), Judge Gray H. Miller issued a declaratory judgment that the male-only registration requirement is unconstitutional, though did not specify what action the government should take.

A conscientious objector (CO) is one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles. 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. In general, the man’s lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.

The Supreme Court has ruled in cases that conscientious objection can be by nonreligious beliefs as well as religious beliefs; but it has also ruled in Gillette v. United States (1971) against objections to specific wars as grounds for conscientious objection.

There is currently no mechanism to indicate that one is a CO in the SSS. According to the SSS, after a person is drafted, he can claim CO status and then justify it before the local board.

There are two types of status for conscientious objectors. If a person objects only to combat but not to service in the military, then the person could be given noncombatant service in the military without training of weapons. If the person objects to all military service, then the person could be ordered to “alternative service” with a job “deemed to make a meaningful contribution to the maintenance of the national health, safety, and interest.”

The SSS has maintained that they have implemented several reforms that would make the draft more fair and equitable. Some of the measures they have implemented include: 1. Before and during the Vietnam War, a young man could get a deferment by showing that he was a full-time student making satisfactory progress towards a degree; now deferment only lasts to the end of the semester. If the man is a senior, he can defer until the end of the academic year. 2. The government has said that draft boards are now more representative of the local communities in areas such as race and national origin. 3. A lottery system would be used to determine the order of people being called up. Previously, the oldest men who were found eligible for the draft would be taken first. In the new system, the men called first would be those who are or will turn 20 years old in the calendar year or those whose deferments will end in the calendar year. Each year thereafter, the man will be placed on a lower priority status until his liability ends.

The effort to enforce Selective Service registration law was abandoned in 1986. Since then, no attempt to reinstate conscription has been able to attract much support in the legislature or among the public. Since early 2003, when the Iraq War appeared imminent, there had been attempts through legislation and campaign rhetoric to begin a new public conversation on the topic. Public opinion since 1981 has been largely negative.

In 2003, several Democratic congressmen introduced legislation that would draft both men and women into either military or civilian government service, should there be a draft in the future. The Republican majority leadership suddenly considered the bill, nine months after its introduction, without a report from the Armed Services Committee (to which it had been referred), and just one month prior to the 2004 presidential and congressional elections. The Republican leadership used an expedited parliamentary procedure that would have required a two-thirds vote for passage of the bill. The bill was defeated on Oct. 5, 2004, with two members voting for it and 402 members voting against.

Despite arguments by defense leaders that they had no interest in reinstituting the draft, Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s (D-HI) inclusion of a DOD memo in the Congressional Record, which detailed a meeting by senior leaders, signaled renewed interest. Though the conclusion of the meeting memo did not call for a reinstatement of the draft, it did suggest Selective Service Act modifications to include registration by women and self-reporting of critical skills that could serve to meet military, homeland-defense, and humanitarian needs. Draftees with less than two years retention were said to be a net drain on military resources providing insufficient benefit to offset overhead costs of using them.

Mentions of the draft during the presidential campaign led to a resurgence of anti-draft and draft resistance organizing. One poll of young voters in October 2004 found that 29% would resist if drafted.

In November 2006, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) again called for the draft to be reinstated; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rejected the proposal.

On Dec. 19, 2006, President George W. Bush announced that he was considering sending more troops to Iraq. The next day, the SSS’s director for operations and chief information officer, Scott Campbell, announced plans for a “readiness exercise” to test the system’s operations in 2006, for the first time since 1998.

On Dec. 21, 2006, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, when asked by a reporter whether the draft should be reinstated to make the military more equal, said, “I think that our society would benefit from that, yes sir.” Nicholson proceeded to relate his experience as a company commander in an infantry unit which brought together soldiers of different socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels, noting that the draft “does bring people from all levels of our society together in the common purpose of serving.” Nicholson later issued a statement saying he does not support reinstating the draft.

A similar bill to Rangel’s 2003 one was introduced in 2007, called the Universal National Service Act of 2007 (H.R. 393), but it has not received a hearing or been scheduled for consideration.

On June 14, 2016, the Senate voted to require women to register for the draft, though language requiring this was dropped from later versions of the bill.

In 2020, the bipartisan National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service issued a final report recommending that the military improve enlistment rates through improved outreach and recruiting, rather than a renewed draft. However, it also recommended that the U.S. Department of Defense perform regular national mobilization drills to rehearse a recommencement of the draft.

The Selective Service (and the draft) in the United States is not limited to citizens. Today, noncitizen males of appropriate age in the United States, who are permanent residents (holders of green cards), seasonal agricultural workers not holding an H-2A Visa, refugees, parolees, asylums, and illegal immigrants, are required to register with the Selective Service System.


By Harold B. Wolford

Veterans Corner

Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.

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