On Wednesday, the 29th of July, I filed a lawsuit against the federal government declaring that, because of my religious beliefs, I should not be required to register for the draft unless it could be officially recognized that I claim to object to all war.
I grew up believing not only in nonviolence, but also that I should never submit myself to a system that is contrary to my beliefs. As traditional principles of Quakerism, these were part of my religious education; but also, by Quaker teaching, a person must come to these conclusions only by checking their own conscience.
There was no time that my beliefs were challenged as deeply as when I first had to decide whether or not to register.
I had just come back from six months working with Burmese refugees in Thailand when I was delivered a letter threatening prosecution if I didn't sign a draft registration card, already inscribed with my name and address. Having just lived on the edge of a war-zone, my beliefs were as clear as ever before.
On the other hand, refusing to register for the draft is a felony and, though no one has been convicted in two decades, it's punishable by up to five years in prison. Refusal also makes you ineligible for federal aid in paying for college, and, because of a recent wave of legislation, it can even keep you from renewing your driver’s license in all but a shrinking handful of states (my home state of Washington among them, lucky for me.) According to the Selective Service System, the organization that runs draft registration, many states with these license laws have seen registration leap to 99 percent.
But a more pressing question for me was: What does a belief in nonviolence really mean? I had to go back to the beginning, to the very root of my beliefs.
To me it came down to this: if I register, I'm saying, “If there's a war and you need someone to fight, call me up.” That's not a statement I can make and still respect my conscience. To me, any lie I put my word behind is reprehensible, and one that also violates my principles of belief is out of the question. If I'm ready to give up my beliefs for a little ease or regularity, what does that make me?
I sent in the first of many letters to the SSS indicating my refusal and asking for relief on religious grounds (and making it clear that I would be happy to register for service, as long as it would be recognized that I was indicating service at a nonmilitary facility such as a hospital or school). Two years later, still denied federal college aid or recognition of my beliefs, I sat with my lawyer, Arthur Spitzer of the ACLU, in a benign waiting room deep in the DC federal court house, watching the friendly clerk as she photocopied the 15 pages of my legal complaint.
I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I’m happy and exhausted, in the capital of this nation that will always be my home, no matter how far I travel. I feel grateful to finally have a way that I can seek relief; still, I think the change that I'm asking for is mostly a change of minds.
I can't tell you how often people have said to me, “I had no idea young men still have to register for the draft.”
Many of those young men are unaware, too. Over and over I talk to men my own age who say, “I never registered.” I ask them if they're in college and, if so, if they're receiving any financial aid. If the answer is yes, then I tell them, “Well, then you did register.”
I nearly registered myself on accident when I was filling out my application for student aid. There's a tiny line in the middle of the application for federal aid: the innocuous phrase, “Register student for Selective Service?” Below that is the fine print saying that if you answer “no” you won't be eligible for any financial aid. It's such a no-brainer that so many people answer yes, not realizing that a signature at the end of the form counts as an official signature registering you for the draft.
Now, like anyone involved in the legal process, I have to be patient. The defendants have 60 days before they have to respond, and it could be several years before this matter is settled. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to a country where service means more than war—and no other people, religious or secular, have to violate their beliefs in order to enjoy their rights.