United States v. Seeger: Case, Summary & Decision

Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

The Vietnam War brought the loss of many American lives. Many men avoided the draft as 'conscientious objectors'. In a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court case, a decision was made clarifying the role of religious beliefs in exemption from the draft.

United States v. Seeger

The United States was founded with the intent of maintaining a separation of state and religion. However, religion came into play in the case of United States v. Seeger. The case resulted from the claim of a young man, Daniel Seeger, that he qualified for exemption from service in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, or someone who refuses to perform military service because of religious beliefs.

Many Americans did not believe that America should be involved in the war. There were protests at home, and returning soldiers were not given the welcome customary for returning war heroes. It was not uncommon for groups to organize events where they burned their draft cards to show their defiance. Others took a more direct approach, trying to assert a legal reason why they shouldn't have to serve. For Seeger, this was the case. He claimed exemption due to his religious beliefs, but because he was agnostic and did not base these beliefs on a 'Supreme Being', his request for exemption was denied.

Protesting the Vietnam War

The Case Itself

United States v. Seeger involved more plaintiffs than the case name suggests. Three men, Daniel Seeger, Forest Peter, and Arno Jakobson, had each requested exemption from military service. All three had been convicted of refusal to be inducted into the armed forces, or draft dodging. They went through the appeals process until the case reached the Supreme Court.

All three men claimed exemptions under the Universal Military Training and Service Act, the Act passed by Congress requiring registration for the draft. Section 6(j) of the Act allowed for exemption from military service based on religious beliefs. This section of the Act came from a significant history, dating all the way back to the Civil War and the beginning of conscription, or compulsory military service . Members of religious denominations opposed to bearing arms could be exempt from service or could perform noncombatant service. This held through World War I as well. In 1948, Congress altered the Act to recognize that a conscientious objector didn't have to actually belong to a religious denomination with these beliefs; he could simply hold a belief in a ''Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation.'' However, the Act specified that those who opposed war due to ''essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code'' were not exempt under § 6(j).

Each plaintiff had his own reasons for refusing to participate in the war. Jakobson claimed that he had come to a conclusion, after much meditation, that a man should never willfully sacrifice another man's life. His claimed that his belief in a Supreme Being trumped his relationship with man. Jakobson even submitted a long written memorandum about his own definition of religion. He request for conscientious objector status was initially denied because his beliefs were deemed a 'personal moral code'.

Peter's reason was a little different; he did not complete the section of the Selective Service System form which asked him to declare his beliefs. Instead, he attached a paper to his form that included a quotation about opposition to the war. He later avoided a question about the existence of a Supreme Being and stated that his moral code would be violated if he took another human's life, and he considered this superior to his obligation to the state. Ultimately, Peter said that his views could be called a belief in a Supreme Being or God, though he himself did not use those words to describe his belief.

Seeger's reason was unique; he refused to answer the question of whether he believed in a Supreme Being. Seeger claimed that questioning or disputing the existence of God did not necessarily mean a lack of faith. Instead, Seeger stated that his own religious beliefs, based on teachings of people like Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza, constituted a 'religious faith and purely ethical creed.' His claim for an exemption was denied because his objection was not based upon a belief in a Supreme Being.

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