Views & Voices

The Christian Right’s claims of persecution by the secular state ring hollow

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin AP

Bayard RustinAP

Bayard Rustin

Religious exemptions to various laws and regulations have been much in the news in recent years, particularly in relation to the advance of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.  But the history of religious exemptions does not belong just to the culture warriors of the contemporary Christian Right.

As a society we have long wrestled with religious objections to a wide range of public interests, from African American civil rights, to mandatory vaccinations, and even public schooling.  These issues are significant, nearly always controversial in some sense, and getting them right is not easy.

Indeed, figuring out whether and how to accommodate religious exemptions is one of the necessary skill sets in our religiously plural society.

So let’s briefly consider one of the most difficult issues of religious exemption of all — conscientious exemption from military service.

As it happens, one of the most famous conscientious objectors was Bayard Rustin, a pivotal figure in modern civil and human rights activism, for which he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.

Rustin is best known for having served as a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. It was Rustin who taught Dr. King the philosophy of non-violent resistance as practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi in India. He also assisted King’s 1956 boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and served as the chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech).

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He was also a well-known gay rights activist; a socialist labor organizer who worked with A. Phillip Randolph; and an international human rights activist involved in African and Indian independence movements and in opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

A Quaker, Rustin was jailed for three years during World War II for refusing to register for the draft, and for refusing alternative service in one of the Civilian Public Service camps established for religious conscientious objectors.  (He also spent a lot of time in jail related to his civil rights protests and for being openly gay.)  

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