Muhammad Ali

Clay, aka Ali v. United States 1966-1971

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U.S. Supreme Court. CLAY, aka ALI v. UNITED STATES. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1971.
U.S. Supreme Court. CLAY, aka ALI v. UNITED STATES. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1971.

SuDoc No.: JU6.8:403
Case No.: 403US698
Date Argued: April 19, 1971
Date Decided: June 28, 1971

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In 1966, Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was classified as 1-A (eligible for service in the U.S. armed forces), two years after being classified as I-Y (not qualified), due to an amendment in his mental aptitude test. In response, Ali applied for conscientious objector status but was turned down by both his local draft board and the State Appeal Board. According to existing statutes, the matter was then referred to the Justice Department for an advisory recommendation and the FBI, in preparation for a hearing on "the character and good faith of the [petitioner's] objections," conducted more than 35 interviews with Ali's family, friends, neighbors, and business and religious associates. The hearing officer at Ali's hearing, after listening the testimony of Ali's parents, one of his attorneys and Ali himself (and after reviewing the report generated by the FBI to which he had access), recommended to the Justice Department that Ali be granted his conscientious objector status.

However, the Justice Department, in a letter to the Appeal Board, advised against granting such status. The Board honored this request without stating the reasons it was basing its decision. According to the U.S. Supreme Court:

"That denial, for which no reasons were ever given, was, as we have said, based on a recommendation of the Department of Justice, overruling its hearing officer and advising the Appeal Board that it 'finds that the registrant's conscientious-objector claim is not sustained and recommends to your Board that he be not [so] classified.' This finding was contained in a long letter of explanation, from which it is evident that Selective Service officials were led to believe that the Department had found that the petitioner had failed to satisfy each of the three basic tests for qualification as a conscientious objector."
The three basic tests for conscientious objector status that the Justice Department letter argued Ali did not meet were:
  1. an applicant's objection must be against participating in war in any form, not just a particular war (the Justice Department letter indicated that Ali's objection was "limited to military service in the Armed Forces of the United States");

  2. an applicant's objection to service in the military must be based on religious training and belief (the Justice Department letter stated that Ali's "claimed objections to participation in war insofar as they are based upon the teaching of the Nation of Islam rests on grounds which primarily are political and racial"); and that

  3. an applicant's objection must be sincere (the Justice Department letter stated that Ali "has not shown overt manifestations sufficient to establish his subjective belief where, as here, his conscientious-objector claim was not asserted until military service became imminent")
Now, before the Supreme Court, the government conceded that Muhammad Ali's objection was based upon the "religious training and belief" of the Nation of Islam after all, and that his reasons for doing so were indeed sincere (and the Supreme Court agreed with the government's revised thinking). However, the government continued to argue that Muhammad Ali was not against all war, but only wars that were not declared by Allah, which in fact Ali had personally stated many times. However, the Supreme Court found that:

"Since the Appeal Board gave no reasons for its denial of the petitioner's claim, there is absolutely no way of knowing upon which of the three grounds offered in the Department's letter it relied. Yet the Government now acknowledges that two of those grounds were not valid. And the Government's concession aside, it is indisputably clear, for the reasons stated, that the Department was simply wrong as a matter of law in advising that the petitioner's beliefs were not religiously based and were not sincerely held."
Therefore the Supreme Court Justices decided (8-0 with Thurgood Marhall abstaining) in favor of Muhammad Ali.

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