The act of conscientious objection has had a long and sometimes shameful history in the United States. Up until World War II, anyone who resisted conscription or refused to serve after being inducted was apt to be harshly persecuted or physically abused. Since that time, laws have protected those who reject combat on the basis of moral or religious conviction. Alternative service has been made available to many in this group.
The burden, however, has always been on the dissenter to prove his good faith and to find a way to comply with the law, even while protesting the draft.
Draft resistance swelled during the Vietnam era, when a new kind of opposition -- that applied selectively to a particular war -- surfaced.
Now the situation is muddled by another new issue: whether students should receive federal grants and loans if they refuse to register for the draft. Predictably the US government position echoes the sentiments of the old song about love and marriage: namely, "You can't have one without the other!"
Naturally, those who resist registration are raising questions about privacy rights and unwarranted punishment prior to a hearing.
The US Supreme Court will consider some of these issues. It will hear a US government appeal of a Minnesota decision that struck down the so-called Solomon Amendment to the draft registration act, which automatically denied federal college scholarship funds to anyone who failed to register.
The issue is a legal one. It deserves to be debated in the nation's highest court. It cuts far deeper than one case -- touching upon the basic assumptions underlying the Selective Service System, the legitimacy of the draft, and the extent to which government may exercise control over citizens without crossing the boundary into an abrogation of individual rights.
But there are also ethical questions -- not only those that pertain to individual conscience but those that relate to the responsibility of a constitutional government toward its citizenry. The answers aren't easy.
If the high court upholds the Minnesota decision, it could as a byproduct encourage widespread disregard for the draft law. The court is almost certain to take into consideration public opinion. How the decision will be read by the public is perhaps as vital as the legal issue.
Some observers argue that a person who fails to register should be fined, jailed, or both. And that, they say, is punishment enough. In practice, however, judicial admonitions and suspended sentences are the rule in this type of case -- at least during peacetime.
Also it has been suggested that a test of faith be used to separate those who hold that military service, or even registering for the draft, is in conflict with their deeply held beliefs from others who merely wish to avoid service for other reasons.
The government's position: Forget those distinctions, at least at the point of registration. If a student wants federal money, he must register for the draft. This need not compromise his principles; he can deal later with the question of conscientious objection.
It's hard to disagree with that position. The moral questions surrounding conscientious objection become muddied once the question of loan money is added on. There may, in fact, be no hypocrisy involved when a student wants it both ways -- to go unregistered andm to receive federal funds -- but there is surely an appearance of ethical inconsistency.
In the case before the Supreme Court -- Selective Service System vs. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group -- the government brief argues that allowing people who refuse to register to receive federal loans and grants would not only discourage compliance with the law "but reward self-proclaimed lawbreakers." Of course, the argument assumes the government will continue its policy of laxity toward those who fail to register.
We certainly wouldn't advocate penalties that are overly harsh or inconsistent with the offense, but failure to register ism a crime, and it should be treated as such.
Yet another consideration lurks in the background. While we have no quarrel with making draft registration a condition for receiving student loans, we wouldn't want records of noncompliance to be misused, by, for instance, being cited later as the basis for denying a federal homeowner loan or initiating an unwarranted income-tax audit.
Few, if any, of the registration evaders could be considered disloyal Americans or security risks. For many of them, refusal does indeed represent an act of conscience. And that is fine, so long as the decision is made in full awareness of the penalty that must be paid, if the law is to be broken. For others, it is action some attribute to misguided youth -- whose views may or may not change later on. Regardless, there should be a limit to how deeply and how long the government should be allowed to delve into their lives.
A final point -- and a troubling one: Will the effect of tying grants and loans to registration result in a disportionate disadvantage to poor or minority students? The financially well-heeled have options: Forgo the loan or raise funds through private or nonfederal sources and continue their education. For those who aren't affluent, the choices are severely limited.