Every once in a while I read something in the news where some "official" decides to follow "the rules" to the point of idiocy. Notably, there have been several incidents recently involving high school students whose schools imposed rules without common-sense regard for personal differences. Recently, there was a medical decision, based on "the rules," denying a lung transplant to a little girl. There have also been a number of really stupid decisions made by the "government" at all levels: city, state and federal. In some cases the decision could be reversed or altered to suit the circumstances, which gives credence to the idea that most rules are not as ironclad as they may seem. In other cases, the rules were imposed, regardless, and ended up causing much angst and suffering.
The case of Margaret Doughty caught my attention the other day. According to the story on ABC News, Doughty is from England, but has been living in the United States as a permanent resident for more than 30 years. She and a friend who was originally born in South Africa decided to become naturalized American citizens, and together they went to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office to fill out the paperwork.
Doughty's friend sailed through the process, but she got hung up when she was asked if she were willing to take up arms to defend the United States. Keep in mind that this is a 64-year-old woman. She was not going to get a draft notice in her mailbox, even if she agreed. But she wanted to be absolutely honest about her beliefs, so she said no, on moral and ethical grounds. The USCIS officer asked her whether this was a religious belief, and Doughty answered that it was not. The reason: Doughty is an atheist.
For some reason that I can't figure out, apparently, an atheist is not allowed to have "moral and ethical" concerns, according to the U.S. government. Or, at least, there is no provision for this in the citizenship documents. It is simply assumed that one might object to military service on the basis of religious belief. I've heard atheists talk about this before: the fact that they are assumed to have no moral compass or sense of ethical behavior (sense of right and wrong) just because they decline to join an organized religion. Or the assumption that because they are not religious, they must automatically be followers of the devil.
Doughty appealed to friends on Facebook for help, and caught the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) in Washington. These two groups spoke up on Doughty's behalf, pointing out that she met the legal definition of a "conscientious objector."
Someone at USCIS must have realized how ridiculous it was to deny citizenship to this woman on the basis of her beliefs. After all, there are plenty of conscientious objectors and atheists among natural American citizens. Doughty's application for citizenship has been accepted, and she plans to attend a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens with her friend from South Africa. They always have one on the Fourth of July.
If Doughty were a twenty-something male and the United States were conducting an active military draft, things might possibly be different, especially if she came from a country with whom we were not on friendly terms. Even then, it would be inappropriate to stereotype an atheist as someone who lacks any sort of moral standards. :-/