SCOTUS up angle1Written by Don Byrd

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Clay v. United States. There, attorneys for Cassius Clay, who had already changed his name to Muhammad Ali, argued that lower courts were wrong to uphold his conviction for refusal to submit to induction into the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.

Ali cited his beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam for his refusal to fight: “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an,” he declared. “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger.”

The controversy over Ali’s refusal to join raised the issue of conscientious objector status to national prominence. The United States has long recognized the status of conscientious objector as an accommodation borne of our national commitment to religious freedom. Courts applied at that time a three-part test to evaluate a claim for religious accommodation as conscientious objector: the claimant must show 1) that “he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form”; 2) “that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief” and 3) “that this objection is sincere.”

Ali’s case, however, was not just about evaluating his petition for accommodation. His case turned on how and under what circumstances the government is allowed to deny such a request. The Supreme Court was unanimous in its ruling that Ali’s conviction could not be sustained because the appeals board’s denial of his claim for religious accommodation offered no reasons for its decision, while relying on a Justice Department recommendation that made clear errors in its declaration that Ali failed all 3 elements of the test.

If the rejection of Ali’s claim was based on the 2nd or 3rd elements of the test, the Supreme Court ruled, the decision was clearly in error, because the government conceded the sincerity and religious basis for his objection. Without a proper explanation of its reasoning, however, the Court concluded it could not evaluate whether the decision was based on an error of law. In such a circumstance, courts do not defer to the mere *possibility* that the government was correct.

Here is an excerpt in which the Court quotes from a previous ruling:

This case . . . falls squarely within the four corners of this Court’s decision in Sicurella v. United States. There as here the Court was asked to hold that an error in an advice letter prepared by the Department of Justice did not require reversal of a criminal conviction because there was a ground on which the Appeal Board might properly have denied a conscientious objector classification. This Court refused to consider the proffered alternative ground:

‘(W)e feel that this error of law by the Department, to which the Appeal Board might naturally look for guidance on such questions, must vitiate the entire proceedings at least where it is not clear that the Board relied on some legitimate ground. Here, where it is impossible to determine on exactly which grounds the Appeal Board decided, the integrity of the Selective Service System demands, at least, that the Government not recommend illegal grounds. There is an impressive body of lower court cases taking this position and we believe that they state the correct rule.’

Some call this a decision based on a technicality. I call it a profound statement of how seriously we take religious freedom and the requirements of religious accommodation in this country that we do not allow the government to deny conscientious objector claims unless they clearly relied on a legitimate basis in doing so. Ali’s was not the first case to establish that principle, but surely the most famous.

Standing in the face of such intense government and public pressures was an enormous act of courage and principle. Fighting it all the way to the Supreme Court was a gift to all who understand that religious liberty sometimes requires holding the government’s procedures to account.

Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.