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Case Basics
Docket No. 
Elliot Ashton Welsh II
United States
(argued the cause for the petitioner)
(Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States)
Facts of the Case 

On March 27, 1964, Elliot Ashton Welsh II was ordered by the Selective Service to report for physical examination after having been classified I-A and available for military service. Walsh requested and filed application for conscientious objector status. On his form, Welsh specifically indicated that his objection was not rooted in religious belief; he responded "No" where the questionnaire asked if he believed in a supreme being. An appeal board rejected his application. Welsh refused to appear for induction and, on June 1, 1966, was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The Court ruled in United States v. Seeger (1965) that conscientious objector status was not reserved to individuals of a traditional religious background. On appeal, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that because Welsh denied any religious foundation for his beliefs, whereas Seeger had characterized his pacifist beliefs as "religious," Welsh's conviction was valid.


Can Welsh claim conscientious objector status even though he professes no religious-based objection?

Decision: 5 votes for Welsh, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Selective Service, Military Selective Service, or Universal Military Service and Training Acts

Yes. In a 5-3 plurality opinion authored by Justice Hugo L. Black, the Court declared a registrant's characterization of his beliefs as nonreligious to be "a highly unreliable guide for those charged with administering the exemption." According to Justice Black, the term "religious" is broadly scoped, and denying conscientious objector status because of a refusal to use the term "places undue emphasis on the registrant's interpretation of his own beliefs." The Court therefore reasoned that conscientious objector status applies to "all those whose consciences, spurred by deeply held moral, ethical, or religious beliefs, would give them no rest or peace if they allowed themselves to become a part of an instrument of war."

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WELSH v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1969/1969_76>.
WELSH v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1969/1969_76 (last visited August 26, 2015).
"WELSH v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1969/1969_76.