Who is a Conscientious Objector? 

From the Center on Conscience & War


Who is a Conscientious Objector?


    Many people have serious questions about whether it is right to take part in war. They may not know the term, or even that there is such a thing as conscientious objection to war, but they may be conscientious objectors.


    The Constitution gives the government the power to raise an army, so people can be drafted to fight. But, there is also an established right to conscientious objection dating from before the Constitution. It is rooted in our cultural value of freedom-- and many religious groups originally came here so they could follow their religion without government interference. Many of these groups came specifically because their belief that killing and war are wrong created problems for them in the country they were fleeing.


    Once people hear about conscientious objection, they often want to know what is necessary to qualify as a CO with the government. That process is sometimes hard. The rules are fairly specific (and not always fair). However, if COs are properly prepared, generally they will be recognized.


What Does the Government Say?   


    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. . . Section 6(j) of the Military Selective Service Act


What Does That Mean?


    This law says that no person who is “conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form” can be required to kill or be trained to kill in the military. CO provisions like this have been a part of American law since colonial times.

Parts of the Law Spelled Out


    United States courts have interpreted the meaning of religion according to the First Amendment of the Constitution. That amendment guarantees the right to practice one's religion and guards against the government favoring a particular religion over another.


    In 1965 and in 1970 the Supreme Court ruled that the words “religious training and belief” must be interpreted to include moral and ethical beliefs that have the same force in people's lives as traditional religious beliefs. So you don't have to belong to any particular religion to qualify as a CO. In fact, you don't have to belong to any religion at all.


    Almost all Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Jaunts traditions, and many other religions have teachings that support the CO position. If you follow the teachings of a religion, you can use that fact to help show that you qualify for a CO classification. But, remember, merely belonging to a religious body does not qualify; you must show that you personally hold the beliefs.


    If you do not follow the teachings of a formal religion you must show the government that your beliefs influence the way you live your life and instill in you a ‘duty of conscience’.


“Training and Belief”


    “Training and belief” refers to the source of your conviction. It can include any experience and reflection which led you to be against “participation in war.” For some COs, their “training and belief” is a lifetime of being part of an organized religion that teaches non-resistance to evil, nonviolence, active love for the enemy, or “pacifism.”


    For others, “training and belief” can be a significant event in their life that suddenly causes them to realize they cannot be a part of war. For some, it is their military training or other experiences in the military that caused these beliefs to surface. Others can point to books, movies, TV shows, teachers, or speakers which have made them think about whether or not they could fight in a war.


“Essentially Political, Sociological, or Philosophical Views”


    The statute states that “religious” as used here “does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views, or a merely personal moral code.” While the Supreme Court has made it clear that beliefs that otherwise qualify as “religious” may include these considerations, if your only objection to participation in war is, for example, that war is an inefficient and expensive way to solve problems, your local claims board could deny your claim because it is “essentially political or sociological.”


“Merely Personal Moral Code”


    The law does not accept “a merely personal moral code” as the basis for a CO classification. This is intended to exclude from CO status persons who have nothing but a private, personal preference against participating in war, and who do not feel so strongly about war that it can be said they have a genuine moral or religious basis to the objection.


    A person who wants to get out of military service because it is inconvenient or for reasons of “personal expediency” (“it interferes with my school, job, or family plans, etc.”) cannot expect to be classified as a CO.


“Participation in War”


    Your CO claim is not an abstract, critique of war. It is a personal statement of what you believe and what you can or cannot do because of those beliefs. You must specifically address why your beliefs do not allow you to participate in war.


“War in Any Form”


    The current law says that a CO must object to “participation in war in any form.” This means that in order to qualify as a CO you must be prepared to say honestly that you would refuse to participate in any war that you might realistically face today.


    Many, perhaps most people, believe that they should only fight in a war for a just cause. Those who feel that they would fight in some wars but would refuse to fight wars that they think are wrong are often called “selective conscientious objectors.”


    Under US law, you cannot qualify for CO status if you say that you would participate in a particular war, but not others. Some selective COs believe that the conditions for a “just war” can no longer be met today. By a process of elimination they might qualify as COs under current law by showing that they believe a “just war” is impossible in our time.


    Local draft boards like to ask hypothetical questions of COs, for example about Hitler. The courts have stressed that you don't have to know what you would have done in a past war or in some hard-to-imagine future circumstance. You just don’t know--and that is an honest, and acceptable answer under the law for a CO!


    The only conflicts you must refuse to fight in are those organized wars which you might reasonably be called upon to fight in today's world.


Must a CO be Nonviolent?


    Although many COs hold absolutely to the principle of nonviolence, to qualify as a CO you don't have to be committed to nonviolence or nonresistance in every situation. The law does not require a conscientious objector to be opposed to all forms of violence, the use of force, police powers, or even to all taking of human life.


    It requires only that a person be conscientiously opposed to the planned and organized killing that take place in warfare. Willingness to use violence against another individual in order to protect yourself or your friends is not in itself legitimate grounds for denial of a CO claim. 

Other Types of COs

Nuclear COs: There is a growing number of people whose consciences would not permit them to participate in a nuclear war, or what they believe would become a nuclear war. Some nuclear COs become opposed to all war because, according to their belief, all wars fought by the major powers could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.


At this time the law does not recognize nuclear COs (a form of selective objection) as conscientious objectors. Some nuclear COs might qualify on the ground of their opposition to all war. Current policy in the armed forces is to reassign persons who have moral reservations about handling or firing nuclear weapons.



Non-cooperators: Registration for the draft was begun in 1980 to “send a message” to the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. The Director of Selective Service has called it a “weapon in our arsenal like a bomber or missile;” some believe it helps “deter” the “enemy” from attacking us.


    Some people will not cooperate with the Selective Service System. They are conscientiously opposed to participation in war and they conclude that the draft, itself, serves the purposes of war.


    Many of them refuse to register for the draft. Others, having already registered, have stopped complying with the requirement to keep Selective Service informed of a change of address. (There is no legal process for “un-registering”.)


    In previous periods of conscription many refused to cooperate. During World War II over 5,000 went to prison for their beliefs.


    Since 1980 when draft registration resumed, millions of people have violated the law, but only twenty non-registrants were brought to court, the most recent in 1984.


    What does happen is that non-registrants are denied federal aid for education and job training, and are barred from most employment with the federal government. Some states have enacted additional penalties, and even link draft registration with getting a drivers license. A few colleges and religious bodies have arranged to provide assistance to make up for the loss of student financial aid. A national Fund for Education and Training (FEAT) has been initiated to supplement these programs.


Selective Service & The Draft


Dealing with Selective Service


    Until a draft begins Selective Service will give no opportunity for COs to be classified. Any attempt to officially register your personal convictions in advance will be rejected.


    The classification rights for COs are protected by the statute and court decisions. However, because many local boards do not follow the law, COs whose claims are rejected often must go to court to be recognized. A well documented CO claim should ultimately be recognized by the government.


    The draft would begin after Congress authorized it and the President ordered it to start. A draft "lottery" would be held in which everyone born in a particular year would have their birthday matched up with a "lottery number."


    Those who are turning twenty during the calendar year when indications resume would be called first, beginning with those who have the lowest lottery numbers. The first draftees could have as little as ten days before they must appear for a physical examination and induction.


    Those who want CO or other classifications must notify the Selective Service area office by submitting the claims form (SSS form 8 or 9) during the narrow window of time Selective Service provides (probably 7 to 10 days). COs will then have 10 days to document their claim.


    Those who want CO or other classifications must notify the Selective Service area office by submitting the claims form (SSS form 8 or 9) during the narrow window of time Selective Service provides (probably 7 to 10 days). COs will then have an additional 10 days to document their claim.


    COs are required to appear at a local board hearing which could be scheduled with only ten days notice. If the claim is denied, the local board must tell you why, but "any basis in fact" can be used to deny. A denial of the claim can be appealed.


    COs can prepare themselves to have their claims accepted by using the written materials supplied by CCW. We recommend that COs also get individual help from local draft counselors, their religious organization, or from counselors at CCW.


    Those planning to claim conscientious objector status should keep records of their actions and writings which show what they believe about war. Keep a file of everything you send to and receive from the Selective Service System, including notes of conversations, and copies of all forms and information submitted, including the original registration card.


    Keeping a second set of this information with a trusted advisor may also make sure the file is available when it is needed. (CCW keeps such files as do draft counselors and religious advisors.)


Alternative Service/Noncombatant Service


    Even though Conscientious objectors are not drafted to kill in the military they still must serve the country if there is a draft. The law provides for two different forms of conscientious objector service:



    Many alternative service workers find their own jobs for approval by the Selective Service System. In the past, many COs worked in hospitals and in programs operated by religious organizations.


    Those requesting CO status while in the military must request either discharge or transfer to non combatant duty. Upon discharge, if they are subject to the draft, they may be required to perform alternative service for their uncompleted portion of military service.

If You Need Information or Help

Write or telephone CCW. We will help you and put you in touch with other sources of information. In particular you may want to ask for our Basic Draft and Registration packet which helps you establish documentation of your CO status. If you are a member of a religious body, ask a sympathetic priest, minister, rabbi, or other religious leader for their advise.

Organizations that can help:

Center on Conscience & War (NISBCO)
1830 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (202) 483-2220
Fax: (202) 483-1246
Email: nisbco@nisbco.org

Central Committee on Conscientious Objection (CCCO)
1515 Cherry St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(888) 236-2226
630 20th St., Suite 302
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 465-1617

Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (COMD)
PO Box 15195
San Diego, CA 92175
(619) 265-1369