Sage Advice

Prospective citizens must be cautious when they abjure

Ours is a nation in which a professional class of liar -- the politician -- draws a solemn distinction between lying and lying under oath. Everyday deceits are fine, but when you raise that right hand, the world can turn on what "is" is.

On the other hand, if you're not already a citizen -- you just want to become one -- telling the unvarnished truth under oath can have the opposite effect. Refuse to tell the right lie, and you may have a hard time winning the privilege to vote for the lying politician of your choice.

Meet Linda and Martin Sage.

The Sages are from Great Britain, but they've resided in St. Louis for the past 26 years and decided in late 1998 to apply for U.S. citizenship. She was a science writer at the Washington University School of Medicine, he a longtime professor and administrator at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. They raised two fine children, obeyed the law and were active in community and volunteer work.

In short, they were model noncitizens.

Last August, they both scored 100 percent on their written citizenship tests, but during the accompanying interviews with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), they offered different answers when asked the following question:

"If the law requires it, are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the U.S.?"

Martin said yes. Linda said no.

"I'm a pragmatist; she's an idealist," Martin told me.

It turns out that Linda refused to take that part of the oath "because I find war morally repugnant and believe that strengthening international laws rather than violent action is the way to approach conflicts." She requested a modified oath omitting the reference to bearing arms.

But when the interviewer asked Linda whether her objection was based on her religious views, she said no, it was just a matter of personal conscience. This was not a pragmatic response.

A few months later, Martin received the good news of his citizenship, which became official in February. Linda heard nothing.

After twisting and turning through the INS bureaucracy for several months, however, Linda finally got an answer on May 26: Her application for naturalization had been denied because "you have not provided evidence of a religious basis for your refusal to bear arms."

The letter cited a passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act that reads, "The term 'religious training and belief' as used in this section shall mean an individual's belief in a relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological or philosophical views or a merely personal code."

In fairness to the INS, the rejection was simply a matter of following the letter of the law: Linda's stated objection to war had indeed been expressed as "merely personal." She had neglected to tell the interviewer that she is an active member of the Ethical Society here in St. Louis, a noble but nondenominational fellowship that would have met the definition of a religious group in this context.

Why didn't she mention it?

"In the ethical movement, people make up their own minds about issues," she says. "We don't follow any dogma, just our own personal convictions, so I'm not used to quoting my membership in the Ethical Society to support the way I feel about things."

And why couldn't she just have gone along and said yes to a silly and meaningless little oath?

"I just couldn't do it. It would have been the easy thing to do, but this is a matter of conscience with me."

Still, Linda wanted citizenship, so she went to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. Helped by legal director Denise Lieberman, she appealed the case, citing her Ethical Society membership, as well as Supreme Court precedent allowing an exception for those with "a sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the exemption."

It was a slam-dunk: On Monday, INS examiner Gerri Frison did the right thing: After hearing Linda's story, she said the modified oath would be fine. Linda can expect to gain citizenship in the next few months.

But what a strange odyssey it was. Thanks to a funky law, our nation was prepared to refuse citizenship to a 59-year-old woman because she wasn't prepared to swear to take up arms.

Hello?

Linda says she has serious back problems -- "I can't lift more than 10 pounds and have trouble bending over" -- and for his part, Citizen Martin, 64, doesn't seem like the most useful soldier, either.

"I've had cataracts on both eyes and don't see properly," he says. "I would be a menace to whatever side gave me a gun."

Martin followed the easier road by being a pragmatist, but from stateside, one still wonders why new citizens must take such a curious oath. Consider this passage (not contested by Linda) to which prospective citizens must swear:

"To renounce and abjure absolutely entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen."

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