Citizenship Confusion: You Don’t Have To Join A Church To Become An American

No one is required to make any type of religious affirmation to receive U.S. citizenship.

There has been a lot of talk lately on social media networks about a woman named Margaret Doughty.

Doughty was born in England but has lived in the United States for 30 years. Recently, she filed paperwork to become a naturalized citizen and ran into a bit of a problem: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Houston initially denied her request for conscientious objector status because Doughty is an atheist and not a member of a recognized pacifist church.

She was told to submit a letter on “official church stationery” proving that she is “a member in good standing” of a church that opposes the bearing of arms.

To back up a bit: Naturalized citizens are required to swear a citizenship oath that includes a promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.”

Members of pacifist religious groups (such as Quakers) are routinely given an exemption from the vow to bear arms. Doughty is a pacifist but she’s also an atheist, so obviously she was unable to submit a letter from a religious group attesting to her belief in non-violence.

She should never have been asked to submit such a letter. It’s a long-established principle in the law that conscientious objection can’t be limited only to those who hold religiously based objections to war. The issue came up during the Vietnam War, resulting in a Supreme Court opinion in which the court ruled that those whose opposition to war derives from a “sincere and meaningful belief” that is akin to a belief in God also deserve an exemption from compulsory military service.

The good news is that Doughty will be able to become a citizen without joining a church. The office of U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) intervened on her behalf, and the USCIS withdrew the demand and told Doughty that her application for citizenship has been approved.

I’m glad Doughty’s issue was resolved, but there seem to be some larger problems with the naturalization process that cry out for attention. Since 2005, Americans United has had to write to the Immigration and Naturalization Service four times on behalf of people who were told they had to say “So help me, God” to take the oath of citizenship. (They don’t; it’s optional.)

Just last week, I took a call from a woman going through the naturalization process who ran into the same problem. I asked our attorneys to help her out.

Americans United and other groups can usually get these matters resolved by writing letters to the appropriate officials. In fact, our attorneys are currently preparing a letter to INS officials about the Doughty case in the hope that we can keep this from happening again.

We shouldn’t have to keep sparring over this issue. By now it should be clear that no one is required to make any type of religious affirmation to receive U.S. citizenship.

For some reason, that message is not getting through, even to officials and staff members at the INS. It needs to.