Clay v. United States: A Pivotal Moment in War Ethics

The Louisville Political Review looks at monumental court cases that have defined the city of Louisville, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Today we examine Clay v. United States and its societal impact on civil liberties.


On November 1st of 1955, the United States began their controversial campaign in the Vietnam War. In the 1960s, thousands of college students would create a series of anti-draft protests on their campus. During the Civil War, Americans took to the streets following Lincoln’s draft order of 1863 that brought forth a riot in New York City. College campuses became a crucible for anti-war protest as students came to protest an unjust war as graduation would spell Vietnam for thousands of graduating college students. Students began burning their draft cards as acts of rebellion in 1964. Thousands of young men burned their draft cards and left the country to evade the war. 

In 1969, President Nixon ordered a random selection lottery system for men to serve in the war based on their age and date of birth. Muhammad Ali, a Muslim and an influential figure in the United States and the world of boxing, was given the status of I-A, meaning he was eligible for unrestrictive military services.Ali would be the first to be deployed to Vietnam. From this he had to report to Houston to undergo a series of tests before being shipped out to Vietnam. However, he refused, as the war went against the teachings of his religion. Because of his defiance, he was prosecuted and convicted. 

The Opinion of the Court

Following his moral stance, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ali was to be jailed, and given a $10,000 fine for his “disorderly conduct.” Ali was essentially black-balled from the boxing community, following a number of boxing commission unrecognizing him as the undisputed boxing heavyweight champion. Formerly known as Cassius Clay (changed his name in the 1960s due to his religious and personal beliefs), Ali filed for a petition to the Supreme Court, whereas we get the trivial case of Clay v. United States

The main question that arose from the case was whether Ali’s induction notice was unlawful since it was based on an incorrect denial of his claim of conscientious objector status.  The biggest obstacle for the court was defining what classifies as a conscientious objector. The court concluded that a person must meet three criteria to be given conscientious objector status. First, they must show that they conscientiously object to war in any form (Gillet v. United States), as the Court cited United States v. Seeger, where they ruled that (persons) must “show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief as to the requirement that a registrant’s opposition to war must be sincere.” The Department of Justice hearing officer who examined Ali noted that “the registrant is sincere in his objection. The Department of Justice was wrong in advising the Board in terms of a purported rule of law that it should disregard this finding simply because of the circumstances and timing of the petitioner’s claim.” 

The biggest argument made in the Supreme Court’s opinion was that there was absolutely no way of knowing which of the three grounds offered in the DOJ letter the Appeal Board relied upon to deny Ali’s claim of conscientious objector status. It is imperative to note that the examiner who held hearings with Ali and his associates concluded that “it seems clear that the teachings of the Nation of Islam preclude fighting for the United States not because of objections to participation in war in any form but rather because of political and racial objections to policies of the United States as interpreted by Elijah Muhammad . . . it is therefore our conclusion that registrant’s claim objections to participation in war insofar are based upon the teachings of the Nation of Islam, rest on grounds which primarily are political and racial.” The examiner suggested that Ali be granted the status, however, the board denied Ali’s request without a statement of reason. 

Defining Precedent 

The Court relied heavily on Sicurella v. United States to emphasize the importance of moral and ethical objections to war. In Sicurella, the Court held that an error in an advisory letter from the DoJ did not require a reversal of a criminal conviction because there was a ground on which the Appeal Board might have properly denied a conscientious objector claim. The Court noted that “it is impossible to determine exactly which grounds the Appeal board decided, the integrity of the Selective Service System demands, at least, that the government not recommend illegal grounds.” 

The opinion from Sicurella is nothing new, it stems from Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, where the Court reversed a conviction for violating a California law that contained three separate clauses, finding one clause that violated the U.S. Constitution. Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes mentioned that, “It is impossible to say under which clause of the statute the conviction was obtained . . . thus if any of the clauses in question is invalid under the Federal Constitution the conviction cannot be upheld.” That is a similar stance that Chief Justice Burger took in this opinion, because of the lack of evidence and grounds, it became harder to validate an erroneous decision made by the board. 

The Supreme Court unanimously voted to reverse the Court of Appeals decision. The Court noted that because the Appeal Board did not provide a reason for denying Ali the exemption. The main reasoning behind the judgment is that even though Ali did meet two of the criteria, it was unclear to what ground the Appeal Board used to deny Ali, therefore the previous conviction could not be sustained.

The Impact of the Case

Because of Clay v. United States, Americans have the opportunity to deny and object to being the subjects of a draft by meeting certain criteria such as health reasons, have dependent children, and now be a conscientious objector. Muhammad Ali’s bravery to stand up for what he believed in changed the course of history. And this Supreme Court case has given people with religious and moral obligations to object to such war. No one should ever be obligated to fight in war that goes against their morality. Clay v. United States is a pillar of civil liberties being protected by the Supreme Court, in part due to the fighting spirit of Louisville’s very own Muhammad Ali.

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