For the past 30 years, Margaret Doughty has lived in the U.S., working as an international literacy expert and running nonprofit adult literacy organizations. Originally from the United Kingdom, Doughty recently applied for U.S. citizenship but ran into some issues when asked whether or not she would be willing to fight in defense of the U.S.
Doughty, 65, responded to the question by saying she doubts that a woman of her age would be required to fight in a war, but was going to answer the question honestly — no.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected Doughty’s response, saying that any conscientious objection to war must be based on religious grounds.
The problem? Doughty is an atheist.
“The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or in the bearing of arms,” she said. “I deeply and sincerely believe that it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life, and my lifelong spiritual/religious beliefs impose on me a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms…my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God…I want to make clear, however, that I am willing to perform work of national importance under civilian direction or to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States if and when required by the law to do so.”
Doughty was told that unless she submitted a letter from the elders of her church saying that she has a religious objection to war, her application for citizenship would be denied.
That’s a problem for Doughty, who won’t be able to find a religious official who will “submit a letter on official church stationery” on her behalf. Citizenship and Immigration Services has yet to accept letters from a non-religious peace group testifying that she is a conscientious objector.
In a letter to Sandra M. Heathman, director of the USCIS district in Texas where Doughty applied for citizenship, Andrew L. Seidel, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, pointed out that there are exceptions to naturalization applicants from pledging they will “bear arms” on behalf of the U.S.
Citing U.S. laws and court decisions in his letter, Seidel tried to illustrate to the USCIS that their decision to deny Doughty citizenship because she doesn’t have a religion is both illegal and unconstitutional.
“It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a non-religious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption,” Seidel wrote. “This is a longstanding part of our law and every USCIS officer should receive training on this exemption … Either the officers in Houston are inept, or they are deliberately discriminating against non-religious applicants for naturalization.”
Another atheist group, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, has also written in support of Doughty, calling the requirement to obtain a letter from a church unconstitutional.
“Given the Supreme Court’s unequivocal instruction that, to be consistent with the Constitution, the government must interpret a statute permitting conscientious objection on the basis of ‘religious’ belief to include comparable secular moral views, the USCIS’s demand that Ms. Doughty provide proof ‘on official church stationary [sic]’ of her membership in a religious group or face denial of her application for citizenship is illegal and unconstitutional.”
Many members of the public have also expressed support for Doughty, who was honored by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for her service in education.
“Over the past two days not only good friends but people I don’t even know have sent notes of support,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “They are people with a wide range of beliefs, beliefs that I respect — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics and others. I think that is part of what has always appealed to me about America -– that people of all beliefs can live together accepting and respecting each other and working together for the common good.”
Doughty is not the first person to challenge the U.S. government’s policy that objections to war must be cited on religious grounds.
In 1970, Elliott Ashton Welsh sought an exemption from military service as a conscientious objector. But because he was non-religious, his objection was denied. Welsh’s case ended in the Supreme Court, where it was decided in a 5-to-3 decision that he had the right to object on non-religious grounds.
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