Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Couple challenge Virginia law on registering for draft
Do you agree? Post your thoughts
An anti-war couple from Blacksburg is challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia law that blocks young men from obtaining a driver's license unless parents pre-register their sons for the military draft.
Parents Catherine Snyder and Christopher Beattie charge in court documents that the 3-year-old state law, intended to increase registration rates with the Selective Service, represents an "unwarranted intrusion" on parents' rights to raise a family according to their religious and moral beliefs.
The claim also echoes complaints more often heard in conservative circles: namely that government is violating their constitutional rights of religious expression.
"I strongly feel that this is my son's duty as a citizen of the country ... to register within 60 days of turning 18," said Snyder, a Presbyterian minister. "I don't think it is my duty as his mother ... to register him for the draft, especially since I am a conscientious objector."
The couple's case, pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court, also alleges that Virginia is illegally punishing their 16-year-old son, Andrew, for reasons beyond his control with no opportunity for appeal.
While an admittedly reluctant participant in the suit, Andrew, a Blacksburg High School junior, said he supports his parents' decision to challenge the law.
"I feel kind of cheated because I'm losing a great privilege because of my parents' moral beliefs," he said. "It's not because of my driving abilities."
State officials refute the family's claims and are seeking to dismiss the case on grounds that no actual harm has been done. The high-ranking defendants - including Gov. Mark Warner and state Attorney General Judith Jagdmann - also claim they are shielded from the suit.
Many states register at DMVs
Federal law requires all men to register with Selective Service within 30 days of turning 18. Failure to register for the draft can result in criminal charges and lifetime ineligibility for federal loans, as well as federal and state jobs.
The Selective Service System began working with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to tie draft registration with driver licensing after registration rates dropped nationwide in the 1990s following the 1991 Gulf War. The government maintains that high registration rates are important to ensure that any future draft would be administered equitably.
To date, 36 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories have made draft registration automatic through state divisions of motor vehicles, which now account for nearly 40 percent of all draft registrations.
But Virginia's law goes a step further than most.
Passed by wide margins in 2002, the law requires males younger than 18 to have a parent or guardian authorize the DMV to forward their information to Selective Service, which will register the men once they turn 18. A parent's signature is required for a learner's permit, driver's license and photo ID.
Failure to complete the Selective Service portion of the form "will result in denial of your application," reads a note in bold lettering at the top of the section.
Catherine Snyder and her son first learned about the law in June 2004, when they went to the Christiansburg DMV office to obtain a photo ID for then 15-year-old Andrew, who was planning to travel overseas.
A longtime conscientious objector, Snyder refused to sign the Selective Service portion. A DMV staffer, after checking with a supervisor, said Andrew's form could not be processed without a signature, the family said.
Snyder, a member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, views the policy as "coercive and wrong." She does not believe her son should be punished for her refusal to participate in a war-related activity that goes against her religious beliefs.
And both Snyder and Beattie said they fail to see the connection between draft registration and a photo ID for a 15-year-old boy.
"I appreciate the intent, or what I gather would be the intent, of the legislation," said Beattie, a Virginia Tech math professor. "But the way minors are isolated in this I found intrusive. ... It just seems to me this is a badly written law."
State seeks dismissal of suit
The Snyder-Beattie family said they looked into a legislative fix before filing court papers to bar the DMV from rejecting Andrew's application.
The family is being represented in the case by J.E. McNeil, an attorney and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Conscience and War. The center acts primarily as an information clearinghouse for conscientious objectors and people with questions about the draft.
"The law pre-empts young men's rights to make their own choice," McNeil said. "And the law pre-empts parents from raising a child the way they want to."
Marcia Meredith, spokeswoman for the Virginia DMV, declined to comment on the case.
But a legal response filed in Montgomery County by Assistant Attorney General Jasen Eige attacked the Snyder-Beattie case on multiple fronts, beginning with the court's jurisdiction over the issue.
Eige wrote that the alleged harm is due to his parents' voluntary decisions. But because the Snyder-Beattie family never filed an application with the DMV, no actual harm has been done, Eige said.
Eige also cited Warner's, Jagdmann's and DMV Commissioner D.B. Smit's sovereign immunity from suit. State and federal law generally shields high-ranking government officials from litigation, although that immunity can be waived.
The plaintiffs, Eige wrote, are attempting to force the DMV to interpret and apply state law based on their personal beliefs.
"This is exactly the type of burdensome interference with governmental functions and attempted influence of governmental affairs through litigation that the doctrine of sovereign immunity is intended to preclude," Eige wrote.
The state's response also challenges the assertions that Andrew has a right to a driver's license and that requiring parents to pre-register their under-aged sons is intrusive.
If Andrew can be required to register with Selective Service by age 18, Eige wrote, "then it is equally clear that his parents can be constitutionally required to authorize submission of his information for registration."
Finally, Eige points out that even conscientious objectors are required to register for the draft. Men can only claim conscientious objector status if and when they are drafted, and even then often must serve the military in noncombat positions or through community service.
Eige is urging the court to dismiss the case outright. A judge will consider Eige's arguments before deciding whether to grant a preliminary hearing of the matter.
Teen plans to register
Now old enough to drive, Andrew finds himself licenseless and caught in a legal battle while his friends take to the road. The situation is limiting his independence, he said.
"It's a big thing to get your driver's license," Andrew said. He added that it is frustrating to see many of his friends, including some younger than he is, get their learner's permits and licenses.
If he had the option, Andrew would sign the form today in order to get his license despite moral objections to the policy. He has no doubt he will register with Selective Service promptly before his 18th birthday.
"This applies to every single male," he said. "Nobody is singled out."
Andrew said he "generally" agrees with his mother's stance on war, although he believes military conflict is sometimes justified. He would even be willing to serve in the military, he said, but only as a noncombatant.
But that opinion could change by the time he turns 18. That's why he opposes requiring pre-registration to receive a license.
Despite the frustrations of not having a license, Andrew said he supports his parents.
"I am happy my parents are sticking up for me. It's something I'm very proud of," Andrew said. "But I'd like to have my license."