United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)

This case is important for two reasons. One, it was the first case in which the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a statutory provision that exempts certain persons, because of their religious beliefs, from having to obey a law that other persons have to obey violates one of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Two, in its opinion in the case, the Court enunciated an expansive, modern definition of ‘‘religion.’’

The provision challenged in the case was section 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, which exempts from compulsory military service any person ‘‘who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participating in war in any form.’’ It also defines ‘‘religious training and belief ’’ as ‘‘an individual’s belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.’’

The case arose when Daniel Seeger was indicted for refusing to submit to induction into the armed forces. His defense was that he was a conscientious objector to fighting and, therefore, should have been given an exemption from the draft on the basis of section 6(j) and alternatively that if the section did not apply to him, it should be declared in violation of the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. The trial judge held both that Seeger was not entitled to an exemption because he did not believe in a Supreme Being and that section 6(j) did not violate either of the religion clauses. When the case was appealed, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, after noting that there were religions that did not believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, nullified the law on the grounds that it favored certain religions over others.

The Supreme Court agreed with neither of the lower courts. It held that under its interpretation of section 6(j), Seeger was entitled to an exemption from the draft. It thereby avoided having to deal explicitly with the constitutional issue raised by the Court of Appeals. In explaining the Court’s interpretation of section 6(j), Justice Tom Clark, writing for the Court, asked, ‘‘Does the term ‘Supreme Being’ as used in }6(j) mean the orthodox God or the broader concept of a power or being, or a faith, ‘to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent’?’’ His answer was the latter. He elaborated, ‘‘We believe that under this construction, the test of belief ‘in a relation to a Supreme Being’ is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God of one who clearly qualifies for the exemption.’’ This way of defining religion is now generally called a functional definition of religion.

Since the Seeger decision, some scholars have argued that Clark’s definition of religion is the one that the Court either does or should use for the word ‘‘religion’’ in the First Amendment. In Seeger, however, the Court was defining only the word ‘‘religion’’ in section 6(j), and in a later case, Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court implied that the word ‘‘religion’’ in the First Amendment does not have a broad, functional meaning, but it was unclear on exactly what ‘‘religion’’ does mean.

Given that it was clearly not what Congress intended, why did the Court broadly define ‘‘religion’’ in section 6(j)? Apparently it believed that if the law contained a theistic definition of religion, it was unconstitutional. Justice William O. Douglas’ concurring opinion indicated that he thought section 6(j), without a broad definition of ‘‘religion,’’ violated the free exercise clause. Also, in Welsh v. United States (1970), a case similar to Seeger, Justice John M. Harlan’s concurring opinion and Justice Byron White’s dissenting opinion both clearly implied that a majority of the Seeger Court thought that section 6(j) violated either the free exercise or the establishment clause because it granted draft exemptions only to religious conscientious objects and not to all conscientious objectors. In Seeger, the Court remedied this problem by broadly defining ‘‘religion.’’ Had it not done so, it might have felt compelled to nullify the draft exemption law, which would have eliminated, at least temporarily, exemptions from the draft during the Vietnam War and perhaps made the Court as unpopular as the war itself was.

ELLIS M. WEST

References and Further Reading

  • Mansfield, John H. ‘‘Conscientious Objection—1964 Term.’’ in Religion and the Public Order 1965, edited by D. A. Giannella, 3–81. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Rabin, Robert L., When Is a Religious Belief Religious: United States v. Seeger and the Scope of Free Exercise, Cornell Law Quarterly 51 (1966): 231–249.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)
  • Universal Military Training and Service Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 456(j)

See also Clark, Tom Cambell; Conscientious Objection, the Free Exercise Clause

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