Margaret Doughty, 64, hails from the U.K., but she’s lived in the United States for more than 30 years. Doughty is a well-known consultant on literacy projects who, from Baton Rouge to Oklahoma City, has led countless people on the path to proficiency in English. Many of those people are immigrants and recent citizens. Her clients have included the city of Los Angeles and the U.S. Department of Education.
When Doughty recently decided to acquire U.S. citizenship herself, she had no reason to think it would be a hard slog.
“I have worked hard to fight for the rights of others, and change laws and systems to do a small part in building a better nation. That sounds like what a citizen should do,” she told me today. “So I decided to apply, not thinking at the time that it would turn out to be such a complicated issue.”
The reason her application stands a good chance of being denied is that Margaret Doughty is not religious.
Why would that matter?
Well, the topic of her religiosity came up when an USCIS official asked Doughty to confirm that, when asked, she would take up arms in defense of the United States. Doughty, who had just been made to swear an oath to tell the truth (as is customary with citizenship applications), felt honor-bound to answer the question…truthfully. She responded that she would be unfailingly loyal to the United States, but that her conscience doesn’t allow her to inflict violence on another person.
The immigration agent explained that the question, in Doughty’s case, was pretty much academic. The United States does not put sexagenarians on the front lines. Doughty, however, felt helpless to change her answer, and the agent told her that was going to be a problem, claiming that the USCIS recognizes only religiously-motivated objectors (Doughty isn’t religious; she identifies as an agnostic).
The official wasn’t kidding. Doughty received the following letter from the USCIS’ Houston office, telling her it must receive
It’s a useless demand, as the USCIS already knows full well Doughty doesn’t belong to a “congregation” and thus cannot produce a letter written by “two church elders.”
To add insult to injury, USCIS is demanding that Doughty responds with the requested document by June 21 — “failure to do so may result in the denial of your application.”
Doughty is appealing to her Congressman, Blake Farenthold, for help with her case, and has been heartened by a letter written by Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel, who let the USCIS know in no uncertain terms that the law is not on the agency’s side. Wrote Seidel:
Either the officers in Houston are inept, or they are deliberately discriminating against nonreligious applicants for naturalization.
Seidel, however, cannot act as Doughty’s attorney, and the applicant has a call in to a local immigration lawyer who might.
As an agnostic American myself, as well as a first-generation immigrant, I hope that Doughty’s argument will prevail. “The USCIS should recognize conscientious objection on both religious and moral grounds,” she believes.
Giving religious applicants a benefit that is withheld from non-religious ones would be hostile to bedrock American ideals. It’s a sign of Margaret Doughty’s worthiness as a future American that she not only understands this, but is willing to fight for the point.
At the same time, it is surely an embarrassment for the USCIS that a non-citizen immigrant should have to educate the agency on what our country truly stands for.