Summary and Timeline of Developments on Conscientious Objection for Military Personnel
The discussion and action on conscientious objection in WWII focused on the right to do work of national importance under civilian direction (alternative service), when faced with military conscription. At that time, little if any attention was given to the questions of conscience that arose for soldiers who had already been drafted. As noted in the timeline below, these important questions came to the fore over the next several decades.
1951: The Department of Defense (DoD)made its first ruling in relation to in-service soldiers who became conscientious objectors, authorizing them to be assigned to non-combatant duties. (1)
1952: A Handbook for Conscientious Objectors notes that military conscientious objectors are in an "extremely difficult position," as there were no provisions for CO discharges from the military.
Therefore, the non-cooperator faces a series of courts-martial, time in the stockade, and perhaps an eventual bad conduct discharge. Some have served time in the stockade...Others have been committed to army hospital "psycho" wards...C.O. counseling agencies have heard from numbers of these men...and to date these problems have not been solved satisfactorily. (2)
1962: A U.S. Department of Defense directive authorized “the discharge from service of military members with religiously based conscientious objections to war.” At the time, conscientious objection was defined as “a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form . . . because of religious training and belief.” (3)
1968/1971: DoD directives noted that all claims made by conscientious objectors would be judged by the same standards, whether made before induction or after entering military service. (4)
1971: A DoD Directive, published on August 20, 1971, authorized military personnel who develop conscientious objections to military service to apply for discharge or noncombatant duty. (5)
1971: A DoD Directive charged each service branch with implementing regulations providing for conscientious objectors to be reassigned or discharged. (6)
These regulations were and remain a result of executive branch rule-making, not a result of congressional legislation. However, congressional legislation and court rulings in relation to Selective Service and military conscription contributed greatly to the definitions of conscientious objection used by the military for in-service objectors.
In United States v. Seeger (1965), and later in Welsh v. United States (1970), the Court interpreted the phrase religious training and belief to embrace more than traditional notions of religion, so that moral and ethical beliefs or philosophical views that are sincerely held and central to one’s life may also constitute a valid foundation for a conscientious objector discharge. (7)
1994: While information and counseling related to conscientious objection has long been available to people in the military through groups such as the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, the National Inter-religious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors, and the American Friends Service Committee, it was not until 1994 that a Hotline with a toll-free 800 number was formed.
For a full description of the definitions and procedures used by military service branches today to evaluate conscientious objector discharge requests, click here.
(1) See William D. Palmer, Time to Exorcise Another Ghost from the Vietnam War: Restructuring the In-Service Conscientious Objector Program, 140 Military Law Review, 179 (1993)
 See George Loft and Lyle Tatum, Conscientious Objectors in the Armed Forces, Handbook of Conscientious Objectors, First Edition, 1952, Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, p. 64.
(3) See Palmer
(4) See Department of Defense, Directive No. 1300.6, Conscientious Objectors (May 10, 1968), superseded by Department of Defense, Directive No. 1300.6, Conscientious Objectors (August 20, 1971).
(5) See Palmer