Witmer v. United States
The United States has allowed people to conscientiously object to a war based on their religious status since World War I, nearly a century ago. However, the conscientious objector status was not always easy to attain. In Witmer v. United States, the Supreme Court examined a particular man's eligibility for conscientious objector status after his conscientious objector application had been rejected by his draft board for reasons of insincerity.
Jehovah's Witnesses and Wartime
Witmer belonged to the Jehovah's Witness sect, which has actually been among the most influential religions in the court's treatment of draftees and the conscientious objector status. Many people belonging to the Jehovah's Witness religion have historically chosen to avail themselves of the conscientious objector status, which is available to anyone who has a sincere religious objection to war and military service.
In the First World War, conscientious objectors were only given one option: working in the military, but in a non-combat role. For instance, a conscientious objector might be given a job as a cook or a medic, who carried no weapon and was not given training in combat. However, some conscientious objectors had an objection to serving in the military at all, even in a non-combat role. While these objectors were thrown in jail in World War I, by World War II the nation decided to simply give them necessary civilian work to do at home.
Witmer's Draft Classification Questionnaire
When Witmer initially filed his questionnaire with the draft board, he had the option to mark himself down as a conscientious objector. However, he checked that this status did not apply to him. Instead, he claimed a different exemption to the draft, saying that because he worked for a farm and a hat factory, his work was of vital importance, and that he would do his best to increase production throughout wartime in order to better do his duty for his country.
However, the draft board was not impressed by the level of vital services provided by a worker at a hat factory, and classified him as I-A (the classification that meant you were fit for duty and could be drafted at any time). Only two months after he had filed his initial application to the draft board, Witmer now claimed conscientious objector status as a Jehovah's Witness.
The draft board believed Witmer was being insincere in order to avoid military service. Why wouldn't he have noted his objection beforehand? They refused to change his classification, and Witmer v. United States began.
Supreme Court Ruling
By the time Witmer v. United States arrived at the Supreme Court for a decision, it was 1955. The Supreme Court upheld the draft board's decision, noting that Witmer—who had, in his initial draft questionnaire, noted his willingness to help in the war effort at home—was now refusing even a non-combat role in the war. The overall change to his draft application seemed calculated in a way that would help him to avoid military service, rather than changed due to a sincere change in beliefs.