Sicurella v. United States, 348 U.S. 385 (1955)

In times of war, the United States government often has to balance one’s individual right to religious expression with the country’s need to arm itself sufficiently. Central to this task is determining whether or not a military registrant truly opposes war in all forms, especially where the registrant’s faith demands he or she be prepared for a theocratic war.

Two years after registering with his local draft board, Sicurella was classified for general military service. A Jehovah’s Witness since the age of six, the petitioner filed a conscientious objector claim noting that he was already ‘‘‘serving as a soldier of Jehovah’s appointed Commander Jesus Christ,’’’ which prohibited him from participating in any military war. Asked whether there were circumstances in which he supported war, he replied that he would fight to defend ‘‘Kingdom Interests,’’ but only with the weapons of prayer. Although the sincerity of his objections was not doubted, the board denied his claim because he did not demonstrate opposition to war in all forms. On the Department of Justice’s advice, the Appeal Board upheld the denial. Sicurella was subsequently prosecuted for refusing to appear for induction.

The fundamental issue before the Supreme Court was whether Sicurella’s assertion that he would support war for his Kingdom’s defense disqualified his conscientious objector claim on grounds that he did not oppose ‘‘participation in war in any form.’’ Justice Tom Clark held that it did not. A former National Guardsman and attorney with the Department of Justice, Clark clarified that the conscientious objector test did not require opposition to all war, but opposition to participating in war on religious grounds. Even though Sicurella averred a willingness to use spiritual weapons in theocratic wars, he consistently opposed any ‘‘carnal warfare of this world.’’ Clark insisted that Congress did not intend beliefs in biblical wars to preclude objector status but instead expected claims to be measured against opposition to ‘‘real shooting wars . . . between nations of the earth in our time,’’ with tangible weaponry like airplanes, missiles, and guns. He further noted that the Appeal Board must clearly identify the grounds on which it denies an objector’s claim; where it fails to do so, rejection on illegitimate or arbitrary grounds could threaten ‘‘the integrity of the Selective Service System.’’ In sum, the Supreme Court overruled the lower tribunals because the government could not deny conscientious objector status if a registrant supported spiritual wars that have ‘‘neither the bark nor bite’’ of modern total warfare.

The Supreme Court has not wavered from limiting Sicurella’s application to conscientious objections to participating in shooting wars on religious grounds. In Gillette v. United States, the Court refused to allow a petitioner to object to a particular war (Vietnam) on grounds that he found it ‘‘unjust.’’ Furthermore, Clark’s call for specified grounds for rejection affected several suits, including Muhammad Ali’s muchpublicized objector case. The Court reversed Ali’s conviction because it was impossible to determine on which grounds the Appeal Board rejected his claim, especially where two were admittedly invalid.

DOMINIC DEBRINCAT

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971)
  • Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971)
  • Universal Military Training and Service Act, Act of June 24, 1948, 50 U.S.C. Appx 456(j) and 462(a), 62 Stat. 604

See also Clark, Tom Cambell; Conscientious Objection, the Free Exercise Clause; Jehovah’s Witnesses and Religious Liberty

Comments:

reload, if the code cannot be seen