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

  • The Universal Military Training and Service Act established a draft for all men in the US. However there was an exemption (§6(j)), for ‘conscientious objectors’.
    • ‘Conscientious objectors’ were defined in §6(j) as persons who by reason of their religious training and belief are conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.
      • ‘Religious training and belief’ is defined as “an individual’s belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involved in duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but not including essentially political sociological, or philosophical views or merely a personal moral code.”
  • Seeger was drafted and refused to go, claiming that he was a conscientious objector. He was arrested.
    • Instead of professing a belief in a Supreme Being, Seeger claimed that he had a “belief in goodness and virtue for their own sakes, and a religious faith in a purely ethical creed.”
  • The Trial Court convicted Seeger of draft-dodging. He appealed.
    • Seeger claimed that §6(j) was unconstitutional, since it only allowed exemptions for people who believed in a Supreme Being, and so was a violation of the 1st Amendment’s right of free exercise of religious belief.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. The government appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court.
    • The US Supreme Court found that a person can meet the requirements of being a conscientious objector even if they have unorthodox spiritual beliefs, as long as those beliefs are fundamentally equivalent to a traditional belief in God.
      • The Court found that the proper test of religious belief should be “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 beliefs in God of one who clearly qualifies for the conscientious objector exemption.”
    • The Court noted that §6(j) can still require that that a person seeking exemption prove both that his beliefs prohibit him from participating in war, and that these beliefs are strong and sincere.
  • This case is notable for being one of the few times that the US Supreme Court has attempted to define the term ‘religion’ in relation to the 1st Amendment.