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Welsh v. United States (1970)

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Background Information

Elliott Ashton Welsh II was convicted of refusing to submit to induction into the armed forces - he had requested conscientious objector status but did not base his claim on any religious beliefs. He said that he could neither affirm nor deny the existence of a Supreme Being. Instead, he said his anti-war beliefs were based upon "reading in the fields of history and sociology."

Basically, Welsh claimed that his had serious moral opposition to conflicts in which people are being killed. He argued that even though he was not a member of any traditional religious group, the depth of sincerity of his belief should qualify him for exemption from military duty under the Universal Military Training and Service Act. This statute, however, allowed only those people whose opposition to the war was based on religious beliefs to be declared conscientious objectors - and that did not technically include Welsh.

Court Decision

In a 5-3 decision with the majority opinion written by Justice Black, the Supreme Court decided that Welsh could to be declared a conscientious objector even though he declared that his opposition to war was not based on religious convictions.

In United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965), a unanimous Court construed the language of the exemption limiting the status to those who by "religious training and belief" (that is, those who believed in a "Supreme Being"), to mean that a person must have some belief which occupies in his life the place or role which the traditional concept of God occupies in the orthodox believer.

After the "Supreme Being" clause was deleted, a plurality in Welsh v. United States, construed the religion requirement as inclusive of moral, ethical, or religious grounds. Justice Harlan concurred on constitutional grounds, believing that the statute was clear that Congress had intended to restrict conscientious objection status to those persons who could demonstrate a traditional religious foundation for their beliefs and that this was impermissible under the Establishment Clause. Although an individual's assertion that his views were religious was to be regarded highly, the opposite proclamation was not to be similarly viewed.


This decision expanded the types of beliefs that can be used to get conscientious objector status. The depth and fervency of the beliefs, rather than their status as part of an established religious system, became fundamental to determining which views could exempt an individual from military service.

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