Mennonites troubled by loss of right to break draft law

Selective Service registration with driver’s license issuance takes away pacifists’ ability to withhold information
Associated Press, July 7, 2003

Hutchinson — Despite their faith’s commitment to pacifism, many young Mennonite men register for the military draft. But a new Kansas law that effectively does the registering for them is a source of pain, some say.

Under the law, which went into effect July 1, the personal information of any male age 16 to 25 who applies for a Kansas driver’s license is automatically forwarded to the Selective Service System. Previously, men received cards on their 18th birthday asking them to verify their personal data and register within 30 days or face five years in prison.

Kansas’ new law takes away the right not to, said Jim Ostlund, associate pastor at Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge. The majority of Mennonites conscientiously object to serving in war.

“There is no way on the registration card to check you are a conscientious objector,” Ostlund said. “You have to prove it before a draft board. A youth called to a draft board must show substantial proof this is a commitment they made.

“There is that opportunity if you choose not to register with the Selective Service,” he said. “It is under penalty of the law, but it is a right. By tacking it with the driver’s license, it is taking away that right.”

Kansas has one of the nation’s strongest Mennonite presences. The state is home to about 40,000 Mennonites, many of whose forebears settled the state’s south-central area in the 1870s. Mennonites believe in strictly following Christ‘s teachings, which they believe requires them not to kill people or support war efforts.

Joel Krehbiel, 19, a member of Eden Mennonite Church, said most members of the church did register for the draft, but that the law threatened individual rights.

“It does make it unfair for those people who have religious beliefs that they feel they do not want to register for the draft,” Krehbiel said. “Now it’s almost required they do that. That’s kind of unfair.”

According to the Selective Service, states that have instituted the driver’s license law have seen as high as an 11 percent increase in registration compliance rates. Nationally, a record-high 89 percent of 18-year-olds registered in 2002.

Ostlund said non-Mennonites could find it difficult to understand the sect’s beliefs but that church members were trying to communicate those ideas to lawmakers.

“They just assume everyone would register and they don’t understand why you wouldn’t. By making this law, they are infringing on the freedom to choose not to even register,” he said. “It sounds weird to have the right to break the law, but it is a religious freedom we expect in this country.”

Most members of his church’s youth group register because if they don’t, they are not eligible for federal financial aid for college and face the possibility of being jailed or fined, Ostlund said. To protect its youths, the church keeps individual files on the teens to show that their objection status is a long-standing religious belief.

During times of war, Mennonites have served in alternative service, which requires community aid and civil service hours. But Ostlund said merely having their names on the draft registration is troubling to Mennonites as well.

“We look at it as another type of warfare because they can say to another country we have 11 million people that are prepared to go to war,” he said. “By adding our name to the list, we are used as a weapon of intimidation.”

Besides contacting lawmakers, Ostlund said there were no plans to take stronger action against the law.

“People don’t always understand, especially in the wake of Sept. 11 and the Iraq war and the war on terrorism on Afghanistan,” he said. “To express our views publicly is extremely difficult unless we are asked.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 9, 2003.
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