Automatic draft exemptions for clergymen are as traditionally American as Groundhog Day. But now comes heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay seeking to be excused from military service as a minister of the Black Muslim religion. How do you determine a bona fide clergyman? Where is the line to be drawn?

The questions get even stickier as seminaries suddenly find themselves with a growing number of unlikely applicants who didn’t like the prospect of slogging through Viet-Cong-infested jungles. The Selective Service System reports a record total of 101,069 American males in the draft-exempt IV-D classification for ministers of religion and divinity students.

Last month in Memphis, at the normally placid annual meeting of North American Reformed churchmen, the four-dees came in for candid scrutiny. David G. Colwell, burly pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D. C., said flatly that he saw no good theological reason for automatic ministerial draft exemptions. Colwell’s fellow churchmen promptly rose to dispute his challenge, but none came up with a satisfying rebuttal. As the debate wore on, Colwell’s point began to sink in, and in the end he won the day. By a vote of fifty-five to fifteen (with ten abstentions from Canadian delegates), the North American Area Council of the World Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches adopted a proposal urging the government to treat clergy and clergy candidates “similarly to all professional personnel.”

It was a timely move, because the Selective Service Act is now being restudied by a special presidential commission. Spokesmen predict some tightening of deferments when Congress legislates an extension of the act. The law is due for revision by June 30.

No drastic change such as that proposed by the council is likely, but the commission may be a bit more receptive to the four-dee recommendation than to some others set forth by the council. Also approved was a proposal that draft-exemption provisions for conscientious objectors be extended to all whose conscientious objection to war “is sufficiently profound and pervasive as a life philosophy to impel them to risk imprisonment and other civil and social penalties for their views.” Until the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that an atheist could be draft-exempt as a conscientious objector under certain circumstances, the grounds were solely religious belief.

New legislation was also recommended to provide the possibility of objection to particular wars and to specific military actions on “sincere conscientious grounds.” Governments practicing conscription were urged to consider alternatives to military service.

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Colwell contends that the only grounds upon which ministers should have draft exemption is conscientious objection to war. He is now an admitted “dove” but doesn’t speak out of a vacuum. He suffered wounds in action as a European theater Army chaplain during World War II and won the Bronze Star and five campaign stars, along with the Purple Heart.

“My intent,” says the 50-year-old Colwell, “is to get the Church out of its privileged position. If the Church is really in the world it should get no special treatment.”

Colwell contends that the Church’s “comfortable berth” is a liability rather than an asset. He speculates that “there may be a lot of anti-Church feeling as a result of this.” The objections from within the Church toward ending the automatic clergy draft exemption he regards as “largely specious.” Opponents of his council proposal had expressed fear that the Church would suffer from a lack of clergymen and that it could be destroyed if the power to draft ministers were ever misused.

Colwell is an up-and-coming national church figure who has entree to important forums to promote his views. He is currently chairman of the Consultation on Church Union, but he has ruled out any discussion of four-dees in that context. He has also been a member of the General Board of the National Council of Churches.

The New Prayer Bill

A proposal for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of public prayer is already before the Ninetieth Congress. The measure, designated “Senate Joint Resolution No. 1,” was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and is a substantially revised version of his 1966 proposal, which failed to pass.

The Illinois Republican’s current proposal says merely, “Nothing in this Constitution shall abridge the right of persons lawfully assembled, in any public building which is supported in whole or in part through the expenditure of public funds, to participate in non-denominational prayer.”

The 1966 version said: “Nothing contained in this Constitution shall prohibit the authority administering any school, school system, educational institution or other public building supported in whole or in part through the expenditure of public funds from providing for or permitting the voluntary participation by students or others in prayer. Nothing contained in this article shall authorize any such authority to prescribe the form or content of any prayer.”

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Democratic Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina reintroduced a bill for “judicial review” of the constitutionality of certain measures involving government aid through religious agencies. The bill passed the Senate in 1966 but got hung up in the House.

State support to church-related schools continues to be a major unresolved issue. In New York State, courts are trying to decide the constitutionality of a law requiring public schools to lend textbooks to parochial-school pupils. In Maryland, state subsidy to church-related colleges is the subject of key litigation. Both cases probably will end up in the U. S. Supreme Court.

In Pennsylvania, the big church-state issue is the use of public school buses to transport parochial students. The state supreme court ruled five to two that a law providing for such transportation is constitutional.

Anti-War Show In Washington

Hundreds of clergymen were expected to converge on the nation’s capital this week to demonstrate against U. S. military policy in Viet Nam.

The two-day program was to include a noon-hour silent vigil at the White House on January 31, visits to congressmen, and an evening mass meeting tentatively scheduled for Washington Cathedral. Efforts were being made also to secure appointments with President Johnson and other high government officials.

The American Council of Christian Churches, meanwhile, announced plans to “demonstrate, protest, picket, and follow” the group.

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