By Maria Santelli, Center on Conscience and War (CCW)
If you are concerned about the rights of conscientious objectors and the Selective Service System (aka “the draft”), the time to act is now.
Questions on the future of Selective Service were raised back in 2015, after all military combat positions were opened to women, and the rationale for maintaining a male-only draft evaporated. In 2016, Congress and the President appointed the Commission on Military, National, and Public Service to study the issue for three years. Their conclusions, released in March 2020, included retaining Selective Service and extending it to women.
Though CCW and many other faith and peace communities, including the Church of the Brethren, advocated for more robust protections for conscientious objectors, the commission declined recommending any additional provisions, such as declaring conscientious objection beliefs at the time of registration for the draft.
At the same time that the commission was holding public meetings and official hearings, two legal challenges to the male-only draft were making their way through the courts. Recently, one of those cases came in front of the Supreme Court, the “National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System (SSS).” The court rejected the case, stating that it will defer to Congress, while they “actively weigh the issue.”
And they should. Up until now, Congress has tried to avoid full, fair, public debate, because it is contentious and messy. Neither the draft nor the idea of drafting women is widely accepted: Major General Joe Heck, chair of the commission, told the House Armed Services Committee in May 2021 that “a small majority…52 or 53 percent” of people favored drafting women.
We attended every event the commission held. Testimony given then, and that obtained through FOIA requests, revealed significant opposition to expanding or even maintaining the draft. But it seems that these voices were disregarded, or worse, ignored, in the commission’s report and subsequent testimony in front of Congress.
The commission also seems to have disregarded concerns about the effectiveness of Selective Service registration for its stated purpose. “Less than useless.” That is how Dr. Bernard Rostker, its past director, described the Selective Service System in his testimony before the commission in April 2019.
And, despite the fact that refusing or neglecting to register (which millions of men have done) is considered a “felony offense,” the Department of Justice has not prosecuted anyone since the 1980s. There are extra-judicial penalties, but the most severe of which–and the one that likely coerced the most young men to register over the last three and a half decades–the ability to receive federal student financial aid, will no longer be dependent on SSS registration, effective this academic school year! Non-registrants are still barred from federal jobs and job training, and some states still impose penalties on nonregistrants such as denying state employment, driver’s licenses, state IDs, and access to state colleges and universities and state student aid.
So if the Selective Service System is not effective for its stated purpose, and the federal government is unwilling to prosecute resisters, and the Congress and the Department of Education are beginning to realize that the extra-judicial punishments are unjust, why are we still keeping the Selective Service around? And why has the debate been so limited in its focus on extending this burden to women?
Maj. Gen. Heck and the commission gave us the answer: “[Selective Service registration] sends a message of resolve to our adversaries that the nation as a whole is ready to respond to any crisis. It also provides recruiting leads to military services.”
This porous boundary between the Department of Defense and Selective Service is one reason why many conscientious objectors refuse to register.
The Selective Service System was established in law (thanks to CCW’s founders!) to be a civilian agency, not an arm of the military. As people of conscience, we object to being coerced and denied due process for the purposes of providing leads to military recruiters and threatening our global neighbors.
It is time to abolish the Selective Service. Congress has that option available to them right now. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House (HR 2509) and the Senate (S 1139) to repeal the Military Selective Service Act, overturn the federal penalties imposed on all nonregistrants over the last four decades, and protect the rights of conscientious objectors.
But there is also movement to slip an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act, (NDAA), a “must-pass” Pentagon spending bill, to expand Selective Service (draft) registration to women. Such an amendment must be prevented or defeated.
CCW is calling on the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Military Personnel to hold full and fair hearings on the future of Selective Service, including hearing officially from a diversity of voices, such as the faith and peace community–not just members of the commission. The hearing on the NDAA will be July 28. The full debate by the House Armed Services Committee on the NDAA will be July 31. Members can introduce amendments at this time, and we are expecting amendments to repeal Selective Service, which we support, and to expand the draft, which we oppose.
Find the co-sponsors of H.R.2509, the Selective Service Repeal Act, at www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/2509/cosponsors. If your member is on that list, you may feel moved to reach out and thank them! If not, consider letting them know why it’s important for them to become co-sponsors. And if your member is on the House Armed Services Committee, you can share with them why now is the time to hold full and fair hearings on this issue.
— Maria Santelli is executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, a longterm partner organization of the Church of the Brethren. The CCW predecessor organizations were founded by the Historic Peace Churches including the Church of the Brethren. Find out more at https://centeronconscience.org.
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