Discharges for Military Conscientious Objectors
People join the military for many reasons. Some join for the promise of job training or to receive money for college. Others join out of a desire to serve and protect their country. Some intend to make it a career. Others see it as a step to achieve other life goals. Sometimes joining the military works out, and sometimes things happen to people while they are in the military that make them rethink their entire world view. It can happen slowly, as the result of contemplation and study; it can also happen in a flash of insight. Regardless of how it occurs, there will always be people who join the military in good faith and then discover that their core beliefs have evolved to the extent that they can no longer participate in the military’s mission of fighting wars and preparing for war. Those whose beliefs develop to this point are known as conscientious objectors (COs).
In almost every other aspect of life, when people find that their religious beliefs will no longer permit them to perform a job, they simply find another job. It is not so simple for members of the Armed Forces. People who enlist in the military, as well as those who accept commissions and have not completed their obligated periods of military service, cannot simply quit or refuse to work. Not showing up for work or showing up and refusing to work can subject members of the military to criminal prosecution.
Fortunately, the military offers conscientious objectors a way out. People who develop conscientious objector beliefs after joining the military can apply for discharge or reassignment to non-combatant duties on that basis. Unfortunately, the process is long, complex, and full of hidden traps.
I have been helping people apply for conscientious objector discharges since 1982, when I came to Philadelphia to serve as staff attorney for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO). Since leaving CCCO in 1989, I have represented COs in my private practice and am available to represent members of the military at any point in the CO application process. I also assist those whose CO applications have been denied. Remedies range from submitting a new CO application to challenging the military's decision in Federal court.
If you or a loved one needs an attorney who regularly represents conscientious objectors, please call (610) 649-8200, or click here to send an e-mail to discuss how I can help. My office is located in suburban Philadelphia, but I handle U.S. military conscientious objector cases throughout the world.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is a conscientious objector?
Conscientious objectors are people whose beliefs limit their ability to participate in war. There are many types of COs. Some COs object to participating in war of any kind. Others are only opposed to participating in certain kinds of wars – unjust wars, for example. This kind of CO is known as a "selective objector." Some COs have beliefs that do not allow them to have any connection to the military. Others have beliefs which permit them to be a part of a military force provided they are not required to use weapons. Some COs base their objections on religious beliefs; others do so on moral or ethical grounds; while others object for political or philosophical reasons (i.e., philosophical beliefs which are not moral/ethical beliefs which function like religious beliefs in the person's life).
Are all conscientious objectors recognized by the U.S. military?
No. To qualify for CO status, a member of the U.S. military must have CO beliefs that are either traditionally religious beliefs or moral/ethical beliefs that function like religious beliefs in the person's life. The U.S. military does not recognize political COs or COs whose beliefs are primarily political or philosophical (i.e., philosophical beliefs which are not moral/ethical beliefs which function like religion beliefs in the person's life). To be recognized by the U.S. military, a person's beliefs must prevent him or her from participating in all wars. The U.S. military does not recognize selective COs. The U.S. military recognizes people whose beliefs permit no military service of any kind as well as COs whose beliefs permit service in the military as a non-combatant.
What is involved in applying for CO status?
The first step in the CO process is to submit a written application that includes essay-length answers to a series of questions concerning the nature of the applicant's beliefs and their impact on his or her ability to continue to be part of the military. The applicant is then evaluated by a mental health professional and interviewed by a chaplain. After that, an investigating officer conducts an informal hearing and issues a report which includes a recommendation either that the application be granted or denied. If the report is negative, the applicant is given an opportunity to submit a rebuttal. The file then winds its way through the chain of command and a series of legal reviews and recommendations until it is finally decided by the person delegated by the Secretary of the pertinent military branch.
Are there limitations on the duties to which a person can be assigned while a CO application is pending?
Yes. While a CO application is pending, the applicant is entitled to be assigned to duties that least conflict with his or her beliefs. This does not mean, however, that CO applicants will not be sent to war zones. Rather, it means that if they are sent to war zones, they will not be required to use, carry, or train with a weapon.
Link to Article Relevant to Conscientious Objection
Federal Habeas Corpus For Military Conscientious Objectors: An Outline For Attorneys and Counselors (updated through 6/30/2006)
Links to Selected Judicial Opinions
Link to Other Resource