American citizenship under religious pressure

William Mouelle Makolle, translated by Florence Carré
19 Août 2013

On June 26 2013, Margaret Doughty – a 64-year-old British expatriate- will eventually obtain American citizenship after a month of struggle against immigration authorities. Though an atheist, Mrs Doughty was to join a religious community in order to avoid seeing her application denied. Welcome to the country of Lady Liberty, unquestioned land of democracy.

Thirty years ago, when Margaret Doughty arrived in Palacios, Texas, from Tastfield, a small town in England, she brought her values and principles with her, which she never thought she would one day have to leave behind.
She strongly opposed the second amendment of the US Constitution which asserts the right to bear arms. In addition, and as to underline her annoying difference, she puts forward her atheism. But, as the saying goes, since desperate times call for desperate remedies, when she was filling her application file to get the American citizenship, on June 7, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told her she had till June 21, to join a religious community. Otherwise, her chances to become a US citizen would evaporate…  
But soon, the American Humanist Association (AHA), followed by Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) condemned the nature of the governmental request, judging it “illegal and unconstitutional” in a letter to the USCIS.

Daily Kos website even launched a petition entitled “Tell Homeland Security: Don’t deny U.S. citizenship to atheists”. Unfortunately, the verdict is quite clear: Mrs Doughty must prove her aversion to weapons is due to solid religious principles and not just to some moral and ethical values.

Lincoln’s bible and civil religion

Mrs Doughty underlines on Facebook that this is “not moral or ethical to take another person’s life” and also that the “lifelong spiritual/religious beliefs impose on [her] a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms…” Keeping in mind how delicate it is to broach the second amendment -regarding the recent Newtown and Boston events- she adds “I will perform non-combatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law and I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law”, quoting the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance terms.

According to atheist lobbies, her defense strategy is solid. “It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a nonreligious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption,” wrote Andrew L. Seidel, an FFRF Staff Attorney. “Either the officers in Houston are inept, or they are deliberately discriminating against nonreligious applicants for naturalization,” he added.
In a state where more of half of the population was affiliated to a religious community in 2012, the analysis does not seem so ridiculous. Numerous Americans seem to be willing to forget that since 1791 –year of the ratification of the Declaration of Human Rights- State and religion have been separated by the first amendment.

However, and this might be another American paradox, the religion they care so much about is anything but a civil religion, defined by the American sociologist Robert Bellah as a strength shared by everyone and which covers a large number of values aimed at serving the common good. For instance, when Barack Obama swears on Lincoln’s Bible, or when one is pledging “allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible”, it is all about civil religion. Indeed, it refers to a non-sectarian and non-confessional religion, which gathers all principles belonging to all religions. 

Welsh v. United States

The secular patriotic fervor bringing all Americans together is completely understandable. However, we better stay careful about it. Indeed, the ones who suffer from sharp bigotry -or an excess of patriotism- should remind themselves of the Elliott Ashton Welsh case. He was arrested in 1970 because – likewise Mrs Doughty- he refused to take up arms while the Universal Military Training and Service Act affirmed that any person refusing to join the Army must invoke a Supreme Being. The Supreme Court then implemented, the “Welsh v. United States” provision by which it judged it was his right to contest the bearing of arms and that the Act was violating the first amendment.
Mrs Doughty is the president of Literacy Powerline –an organization aimed at improving literacy rate in the United States. She is perfectly integrated into American society and her naturalization therefore appeared as the most logical development.
Many were affected by her story which sparked off strong reactions both from supporters and opponents. On the website Divided Under, numerous people started to feel affection for the elderly woman, such as Karen Oliver-Paul who insisted on the fact that “she was anyway too old to serve in the army”. Contrary to James Lott who declared she “might be disposed to support and defend the United States and its Constitution.” This raises the issue of the Constitution’s interpretation which opposes « strict construction » to “loose construction”. Basically, it refers to the notion of judicial conservatism under which the law cannot be changed, opposed to judicial liberalism that accepts societal and historical changes.

In the end, the national chaos -and especially the intervention of Texas Republican Representative Blake Farenthold led USCIS to withdraw its request. Besides, the politician addressed a letter to Margaret Doughty in which he confirmed her application has been accepted and that she will eventually be naturalized on Wednesday June 26.

On Friday, June 21, Margaret Doughty posted on Facebook a message in order to thank all people and associations that helped her to get the US citizenship. Maybe it is time for the American Dream to be seriously questioned.  

"Before my citizenship issue I had little knowledge about the important national organizations and bloggers working every day on immigration, discrimination, social justice and peace, and issues of conscientious objection and religion to bearing arms. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Center for Conscience and War, and the Moral Compass among others came forward offering amazing support. It was because of their understanding of the law and the Constitution, their deep knowledge of immigrantion rights, and their support for atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers that the USCIS was forced to back back down. Thank you all! "