As a father, you can never tell just which values you will ultimately pass to your children. I have been continually surprised and somewhat horrified to see just which aspects of myself I have seen in my sons as they have grown. Over 20 years ago, I made an idealistic attempt to sue the government over a matter of First Amendment rights pertaining to my beliefs in nonviolence. My case was eventually thrown out of court, not for lack of merit, but for a legal loophole: the government simply postponed my case until I was too old to have standing in court. I never could have imagined then that someday one of my own sons would take up my abandoned case.
In 1980, the Carter administration launched a mandatory peacetime draft as a Cold War tactic. By that order, every young man in the United States was required to register for a military draft upon reaching his 18th birthday, available to be called to fight any future war as soon as a draft was reinstated. I was among the first batch of young men required to register under this policy with the Selective Service System (SSS), the agency that administered the military draft for the government. I refused. I faced a potential felony charge and risked being fined and sent to jail for up to five years, but I believed that all of this would have been worth it in order to respect my religious and ethical values.
I should hardly have been surprised by my son’s actions when I consider that I, too, had been a son following in the footsteps of my father. At the close of World War II, at the age of 18, my father, Jack Brown, found himself entering a newly liberated concentration camp. He never participated in combat, but this experience alone changed his life. Jack became a pacifist, joined a Quaker meeting, and studied to be a doctor. He traveled the world to work in underprivileged hospitals, and he brought his family along. I was born while he was working in Turkey, and I was raised with his pacifist and Quaker ideals.
I would have been ready to register with the SSS as a conscientious objector (CO) claimant, but there was no way provided. During the years of the Vietnam War, a young man could indicate that he wanted to apply for this status by checking a box on the registration form, but now that check-box was taken away. Those with religious objections to war were no longer being recognized at registration; all were considered potential combatants by the SSS. I believed that this was unjust and decided to up my ante against the government: I sued them for the right to indicate my claim to CO status.
Of course, the SSS managed to throw me out of court, allowing them to continue registering all young men despite their religious beliefs. The SSS never pursued my felony; after attempting a few of these cases earlier, they realized that this was giving them bad press, and they adopted a new strategy of trying to be as unassuming as possible. In their literature, they began to de-emphasize the consequences of registering, in many cases eliminating any mention of drafts or military service from registration cards. On the other hand, they passed laws to tie federal aid for college education to registration, denying those that refused to register any school loans, grants, work-study, or job training opportunities. In these ways they managed to ensure a high rate of compliance while remaining outside of the public eye, and the Carter administration’s registration has managed to continue, unchallenged, up to the present day.
Two years ago, when my son Toby turned 18, he had to make the same decision that I had in 1980. Now he had to factor in that he might be denied financial aid for college, and potential fines for not registering were up to $250,000. I had raised Toby on Quaker values, but this was a decision that I could not make for him. I will not deny my pride when he, too, decided, as a matter of his own conscience, that he could not register with the SSS.
Now 20 years old, Toby attends Bennington College in Vermont. Though he was not eligible for any financial aid according to federal rules imposed on college students, upon hearing about his reasons for not registering, the school decided to make up all of his need-based financial aid from their own private funds. While attending to his studies, Toby took time this winter to petition the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to assist him with his case. After careful consideration of the merits of his case, lawyers, supported by ACLU’s Washington, D.C., office, wrote to the SSS demanding that Toby’s CO claim be formally recognized at the time of registration so that Toby (and those who share his beliefs) can register and thus be eligible to receive federal financial aid and avoid the threat of prison and fines.
I have made sure to tell Toby that I would be ready to do anything I could to assist him with his case. Along with his mother, Zann, a committed Jewish pacifist, and a committee of caring members of his community, we have initiated a campaign to support Toby and to educate the public about this issue.
The precedent for Toby’s case is laid out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which places the burden on the government to prove its actions do not unduly interfere with free exercise of religion. It must, therefore, accommodate those with pacifist beliefs unless doing so disables it from serving a "compelling government interest." In a concurring decision, Justice Frank Murphy of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, "War power is not a blank check to be used in blind disregard of all the individual rights we have struggled so hard to recognize and preserve" (Murphy, J. Estep v. U.S.).
Compared to other nations, the United States is currently behind the curve in upholding the civil rights of objectors to war. Many foreign governments have dealt with their CO citizenry more sensitively. Some progressive governments protect the moral stands of their nonviolent citizens through promoting nonmilitary national service programs concurrently with their military programs. In Germany, for instance, which has a mandatory draft, more young people serve the country in nonmilitary functions than join the military. German hospitals are reliant on this steady flow of young volunteers.
During the past five years, as the United States has conducted warfare in the Middle East, many soldiers have become disaffected and have begun to object to violence altogether. Hundreds of young men and women in the military have applied for CO status since 2001, both because they felt that their ethics were compromised and because they have discovered the anxiety, trauma, and depression that results from involvement in war. Although Toby’s case is about registration and not military service, through his case we are trying to raise awareness about the soldiers’ plight and to educate young people so that they might be able to consider these things before they either register or enlist.
Over 20 years ago, I became dedicated to securing rights for those who object to war. I have become a draft counselor, assisting young people to make these decisions for themselves. I may have lost my own chance in court, but I am hoping that I have not lost my chance to see this issue come to justice, albeit vicariously. We are hoping to locate and collaborate with supporters who agree the SSS registration policy is unjust, particularly with any young men who might be interested in joining our suit in federal court. We also welcome churches, synagogues, mosques, peace organizations, and individuals to help support the campaign. By working to secure a way both to register and to not be counted as a potential soldier, we hope to restore the civil rights of conscientious young men of the next generation.
If you would like to learn more about our nationwide educational campaign, please contact us at: Peaceworks International, P.O. Box 421, Indianola, WA 98342, or http://www.registerforpeace.com.