POLITICS

Margaret Doughty, Atheist Seeking U.S. Citizenship, Told To Join Church Or Be Denied

06/19/2013 11:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2013

UPDATE 6/20 -- Margaret Doughty received notice on Thursday that her application for citizenship had been approved.

EARLIER:

Margaret Doughty, an atheist and permanent U.S. resident for more than 30 years, was told by immigration authorities this month that she has until Friday to officially join a church that forbids violence or her application for naturalized citizenship will be rejected.

Doughty received the ultimatum after stating on her application that she objected to the pledge to bear arms in defense of the nation due to her moral opposition to war. According to a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services by the American Humanist Association on Doughty's behalf, officials responded by telling her that she needed to prove that her status as a conscientious objector was due to religious beliefs. They reportedly told her she'd need to document that she was "a member in good standing" of a nonviolent religious organization or be denied citizenship at her June 21 hearing. A note “on official church stationary [sic]" would suffice, they said.

Here's how Doughty explained her refusal to sign the pledge:

“I am sure the law would never require a 64 year-old woman like myself to bear arms, but if I am required to answer this question, I cannot lie. I must be honest. The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or in the bearing of arms. I deeply and sincerely believe that it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life, and my lifelong spiritual/religious beliefs impose on me a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms ... my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God ... I want to make clear, however, that I am willing to perform work of national importance under civilian direction or to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States if and when required by the law to do so.”

Doughty's reasoning is perfectly valid, atheist groups have argued in response to the rejection threat. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Citizenship and Immigration Services, calling the government request "illegal and unconstitutional."

"It is shocking that USCIS officers would not be aware that a nonreligious yet deeply held belief would be sufficient to attain this exemption," Andrew L. Seidel, a staff attorney at Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote after laying out a list of Supreme Court tests that suggest a rejection would be unusual and improper. "This is a longstanding part of our law and every USCIS officer should receive training on this exemption ... Either the officers in Houston are inept, or they are deliberately discriminating against nonreligious applicants for naturalization."

The American Humanist Association later followed suit, urging the agency to back down or face litigation.

A petition supporting Doughty's quest for citizenship has also been launched at Daily Kos. As Raw Story reports, Doughty took to Facebook this week to thank people for their support.

“Over the past two days not only good friends but people I don’t even know have sent notes of support,” she wrote. “They are people with a wide range of beliefs, beliefs that I respect -- Christians, Moslems, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics and others. I think that is part of what has always appealed to me about America -– that people of all beliefs can live together accepting and respecting each other and working together for the common good.”

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