Immigration office tells atheist applicant to prove church membership
A woman who has lived in the United States for 30 years and now hopes to become a naturalized citizen has run into a road block: her lack of religion.
Margaret Doughty, 64, of Palacios, Texas applied to become a citizen of the United States, but on her application she did not agree to bears arms in defense of the United States because she was morally opposed to killing. Naturalization applicants are required to swear such an an oath, but conscientious objectors can obtain an exemption.
“The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms,” she explained on her application. “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.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Houston responded to Doughty’s conscientious objector claim by asking her to provide an “official church stationery” showing she was “a member in good standing” of a church that opposed the bearing of arms. She has until Friday to provide such evidence of her church membership.
Two prominent atheist groups, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, have sent letters on behalf of Doughty. The letters warned the USCIS office in Houston that it would face legal action if it refused to acknowledge Doughty as a conscientious objector because she was not a member of a church.
“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 FFRF, wrote in a June 14 letter (PDF). “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.”
Doughty, a native of the United Kingdom, has long fought against illiteracy and is the founder of the nonprofit Literary Powerline. Her efforts were recognized by England’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2000. On Sunday, she thanked those who were supporting her.
“Over the past two days not only good friends but people I don’t even know have sent notes of support,” Doughty wrote on Facebook. “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.”