How far would you be willing to go to stand up for your principles? What is the greatest cost you would be willing to pay to defend a moral cause? And would it make a difference if you knew you were standing alone, having the whole world against you and no one behind you?
Today on Legalese, we are going to be discussing an event in which a man was faced with just such a choice and demonstrated the courage we would all, no doubt, like to believe we could muster when faced with such a challenge.
These events culminated in a 1971 Supreme Court case known as Clay v United States. More commonly known as the Trial of Muhammad Ali.
This case demonstrates so much of the best and the worst of America. Especially in regard to American values, our laws and our court system.
Today, we’ll take a quick look at at what it means to be a conscientious objector according to our text, history and tradition. Then a general overview of the events surrounding Muhammad Ali’s objections to being drafted and his struggle to be granted a conscientious objector exemption. A task that consumed his life for a number of years as he fought a criminal trial for “evading the draft” and a civil trial against the various boxing commissions that stripped him of his boxing license. Which subsequently made it impossible for him to make a living and support his family.
As well as an analysis of the shifting public opinion surrounding the Vietnam war and a surprising number lessons that can be learned from that part of our history that shed light on the current public opinions regarding America’s support of the ongoing war in Ukraine….
In fact, I believe this case may be more relevant today than at any time in the past.
Watch Part Two Muhammad Ali: The Trial
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What Is A Conscientious Objector?
Conscientious objection to military service refers to the position taken by individuals who oppose participation in war on the basis of their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. Such objection can take many forms, such as refusing to serve in combat, register for the draft, pay taxes tied to war allocations, or make any type of contribution to a war effort.
Conscientious objection has a long history and is international in scope. The primary impetus has historically been based on religious beliefs.
Before the American Revolution, most conscientious objectors were members of “peace churches” — among them the Mennonites, Quakers, and Church of the Brethren — which practiced pacifism. Other religious groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses although not strictly pacifist, also refused to participate.
Governing authorities have dealt with conscientious objectors disparately, with some receiving exemptions and others being fined or imprisoned.
During the Civil War, Congress enacted The Draft Act of 1863. The nation’s first federal military conscription legislation, which had an exemption clause that would forego conscription to anyone who could pay the fairly substantial fee of $300 which is equivalent in purchasing power to about $10,813.37 today. After riots and debates about the discriminatory nature of the fee exemption, Congress passed legislation allowing alternative service for members of the peace churches.
The alternative service option for religious objectors continued during WWI, but those conscientious objectors who based their beliefs on political, moral, or personal grounds were conscripted and punished if they refused to serve.
In WWII, The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 provided for mandatory alternative service for those who refused to take part in combat “by reason of religious training and belief.” Those who failed to meet these qualifications but refused nonetheless to participate were imprisoned.
The Supreme Court was called on to interpret the exemption for conscientious objection and its relation to the First Amendment in Welsh v. United States (1970) and Gillette v. United States (1971).
Section 6(J) of the Military Selective Service Act of 1967 provided:
“Nothing contained in this title . . . shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the armed forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”
In Welsh, the Court somewhat creatively interpreted and thereby broadened the phrase “by reason of religious training and belief.” According to the Court,
“What is necessary . . . for a registrant’s conscientious objection to all war to be ‘religious’ within the meaning of 6(j) is that this opposition to war stem from the registrant’s moral, ethical, or religious beliefs about what is right and wrong and that these beliefs be held with the strength of traditional religious convictions.”
The Court in Gillette declined to provide additional relief to conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War.
Gillette had objected to participation in the Vietnam War and had refused induction, but he was not necessarily opposed to all wars. Gillette’s view of his duty was to abstain from any involvement in unjust wars. He alleged that if section 6(j) were construed to cover only objectors to all war, it would violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
The Court rejected that view and in the process made it clear that objection to a particular war, as opposed to war in any form, was an impermissible basis for asserting a claim of conscientious objection.
In Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), six Supreme Court justices issued a per curiam rejection of a Kentucky appeals board’s denial of conscientious objector status to Cassius Clay, the world champion boxer who changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
The ruling reiterated and clarified standards for conscientious objectors to be used in similar cases. Citing Gillette v. United States (1971), United States v. Seeger (1965), and Witmer v. United States (1955), the majority reiterated that individuals seeking to be classified as conscientious objectors need to pass three tests:
1. Show that their opposition applies “to war in any form,”
2. Stems from “religious training and belief,” and
3. Is sincere.
Although a Justice Department hearing officer, relying on an FBI investigation, had found in Clay’s favor, the Justice Department nonetheless had recommended that Clay’s plea be denied for failure to satisfy the three basic criteria for conscientious objectors.
The appeals board in turn denied Clay’s request for conscientious objector status without offering a statement of its reason. The government subsequently conceded that Clay met the second and third criteria.
Because the board had offered no reasons for its decision, there was no way for the Court to determine whether its rejection had been based on one of the criteria that the government now recognized him as having met. The Court thereby overturned the decision.
In the next episode of L:egalese, we will take a deep dive into the case history of the various Muhammad Ali trials. From his initial grand jury indictment, initial trial, his appeals in the District and Circuit Court and finally, the truly fascinating story about how his case before the Supreme Court went from a trial that everyone assumed he could not win would conclude unanimously in his favor.
Clay v. United States, the Trial of Muhammad Ali by Thomas Krattenmaker
Muhammad Ali v. Connally, 266 F. Supp. 345 (S.D. Tex. 1967)
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Tags: Law, Constitution, Politics, legal theory, Moral Philosophy, Current Events, Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay, clay v united states, supreme court, judicial review, Conscientious objection, Islam, religion, first amendment, SCOTUS, draft, war, Vietnam, Ukraine