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Early documentation is key to conscientious objector status

Albuquerque, N.M.

Teenagers who think they might seek conscientious objector status if the draft is revived need to start documenting their beliefs now, said Albuquerque attorney Tova Indritz.

The draft is designed for swift implementation, said Indritz, leaving precious little time for a young man to gather evidence of his beliefs to present to a draft board.

Indritz has spoken to groups of young people about this issue.

“Many people don’t realize that the entire mechanism and apparatus for implementing the draft is in place -- the Selective Service board, and all the local draft boards, and the appeal boards.

“And according to the Selective Service they’ve even prepared two drums to be ready for a lottery at a moment’s notice, one with the numbers 1-365, and one with all the birth dates of the year,” she said.

She laid out what she said would be a likely scenario should the president call for a draft in the name of a “national emergency.”

“On Day 1, Congress passes a law” to reinstate the draft, and the president signs the bill the same day or the next, said Indritz. A lottery, “which could take as few as two hours,” is held the next day, she said, to match each birth date with a number 1 through 365.

The Selective Service then immediately issues letters to those men who turn 20 years old in that calendar year whose numbers matching their birthdays were drawn in the lottery. The letters contain orders to appear for a “physical, mental and moral evaluation” 10 days from the postmarked date of the letter, said Indritz, citing government documents.

Indritz explained that a claim for conscientious objector status must be turned in before the date of the evaluation. A draft board then schedules a hearing. If the board turns down the request and if subsequent appeals fail, a new date is set for a young man to proceed with his evaluation.

“It can’t be that you pass the physical,” said Indritz, “then start thinking about conscientious objector status.”

According to the law, a conscientious objector is one who is “opposed to war in any form,” Indritz said. “You can’t be against the Vietnam War and for World War II,” she said.

One’s views must be grounded in a “moral belief,” a “religion or something equivalent to a religion in your life,” said Indritz. One need not believe in God, nor reject the idea of personal self-defense, she said.

Before appearing before the draft board, a written statement should be prepared explaining how one arrived at one’s beliefs and how those beliefs have influenced how one lives one’s life, Indritz explained.

What kind of supporting evidence might one submit to a draft board? Indritz said evidence can include: letters of reference from teachers and religious leaders, or their actual appearance as witnesses; journal entries regarding one’s attitudes to war (these might include responses to sermons, speakers or a relative’s participation in earlier wars); proof of participation in antiwar protests; reading lists and proof of subscriptions to religious or political publications that oppose war.

“If you have evidence from the week before, that’s not going to be as good as something you’ve kept from age 14,” said Indritz.

A man can also start to build his case the day he registers with Selective Service.

Indritz said that the registrant can write in the margins of the form, “I am a conscientious objector.” He should then make several copies and mail one to himself on the same day he mails the official form. After he receives his copy, he should save the copy and the postmarked envelope.

Registering with selective service is required by law. It must be done within 30 days of a young man’s 18th birthday. Failure to do so is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. No one, however, has been prosecuted since the 1980s, Indritz said.

But there are “other prices” that people pay, she explained. Failing to register makes one ineligible for federal student aid and federal jobs for life. Numerous states also have penalties. Arizona, for example, denies state employment to those who fail to register; Arkansas denies driver’s licenses.

Technically, a man can submit his registration as late as his 26th birthday; though he still risks prosecution, the government is obligated to accept the form. But failure to register by age 26 means that “one can never, ever” get certain type of government jobs, said Indritz. These are consequences that young people rarely think through, she said.

A new draft is not a far-fetched scenario, according to Brian Cross, development director for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors.

Cross told NCR that the organization has been besieged by phone calls since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Callers seeking information have included people inside and outside the military, including concerned parents.

The committee, which has offices in Oakland and Philadelphia, was founded after World War II.

“For every request for literature we received in August 2001, we received 400 requests in October 2001,” said Cross. The organization’s GI Rights Hotline received about 2,100 calls last year, and Cross expects to log more calls this year. The hotline provides information about objector exemptions as well as all other legitimate bases for a discharge.

Cross’ work includes educating religious groups as to what they can do to support conscientious objectors. He cited as an example Quakers who include in their minutes of a meeting that “Harry Smith has decided to become a conscientious objector,” notes that can be used as documentation before a draft board.

Cross said that outreach to Catholics has become a top priority for him. Churches need to know how they can be responsive to conscientious objectors, he said, providing information and support. “We want to help Catholic churches gear up to become centers for peace,” said Cross.

Demetria Martinez is a frequent contributor to NCR. She writes from Albuquerque.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003