Comment: 70 years ago Walter Plywaski fought for the right of atheists to become citizens
Walter Plywaski’s death earlier this year from complications from COVID-19 has gone largely unnoticed by national media.
Only an invitation from his family to donate to the civil liberties group ACLU in memory of Plywaski hinted at his legacy in the struggle for religious freedom. Almost 70 years ago, Plywaski fought for the right of atheists to become American citizens – and won.
As a specialist in religious and political rhetoric, I think Plywaski’s struggle is worth remembering. Stories like Plywaski’s provide insight into the discrimination atheists face in the United States even today and the role those who profess no faith have had in holding society accountable for the goals of religious tolerance and freedom.
“Search for admission on your own terms”
Polish Walter Plywaski, born Wladyslaw Plywacki, spent five years in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. After being released from Dachau, the Bavarian camp in which 41,500 prisoners died, he worked as an interpreter before immigrating to the United States and serving four years in the US Air Force.
In August 1952, Plywaski applied for US citizenship while in Hawaii. It only remained for him to take his oath of allegiance.
Plywaki, however, was an atheist. He informed the judge that he could not sincerely end the oath with the words “So help me God” and asked for an alternative.
Judge J. Frank McLaughlin is said to have asked Plywaski to think about what is written on the back of American coins: “In God We Trust“. McLaughlin then denied Plywaski citizenship, justifying his decision by proclaiming, “Our government is founded on a belief in God” and accused Plywaski of “seeking admission on your own terms.”
With the help of the ACLU, Plywaski appealed McLaughlin’s decision, arguing that it was a violation of religious freedom while noting that born citizens were given the opportunity to make claims rather than oaths, which allowed them to assert their allegiance on the basis of their own honor rather than a belief in a higher power.
McLaughlin, however, held on. He argued that the case was not about religious freedom but whether Plywaski “believed in all the principles that support free government,” which McLaughlin said included a belief in God.
Plywaki moved to Oregon and successfully requested that his case be moved there to be reviewed by another judge. In January 1955, Plywaki won his case and became a citizen.
The Plywaski case confirmed that those applying for citizenship should be given the option of not reciting “so help me God” when taking the oath, a policy that is now explicit in the Citizenship and Citizenship Services Policy Manual. immigration from the United States.
But despite the precedent he set, Plywaski was not the last atheist to be denied American citizenship – over 60 years later, non-religious people still had to fight for immigration rights. In 2013 and 2014, two women were first denied citizenship after being told they had to be religious to be conscientious objectors when they refrained from stating in their oath that they “would take it.” arms on behalf of the United States when required by law “.
This was despite the 1965 and 1970 court cases which claimed that atheists could be conscientious objectors.
And even atheists with citizenship have been denied certain rights due to the requirement that a religious oath be taken.
Roy Torcaso won a case in the United States Supreme Court in 1961 after being refused a post as a notary public when he refused to recite an oath acknowledging the existence of God. The Torcaso case made clauses in state constitutions prohibiting atheists from holding public office unconstitutional and unenforceable. Yet such bans have still sometimes been used to challenge open-minded atheists who have won public office, although those challenges have failed.
And in 2014, an Air Force atheist was denied re-enrollment after refusing to say “So help me God” in his oath. The Air Force then overturned the decision and updated its policy after atheist groups threatened to sue.
Such cases correspond to a model of discrimination against atheists. A 2012 study found that nearly 50% of atheists felt compelled to take a religious oath. While they should legally have options to say alternatives, the pressure to take the religious oath remains.
Because “So help me God” is the flaw in many oaths, atheists often have to choose between passing for theists or proclaiming themselves atheists – which, in a country where good citizenship is often unfairly tied to a belief in God, could potentially be stigmatized or mean risking being denied certain rights.
Atheists tend to win cases in which they challenge the denial of their citizenship and other rights due to their refusal to recognize God. Yet the fact that atheists risk facing additional hurdles and legal battles to have their citizenship recognized is, I believe, a testament to their continued marginalization.
The atheist fight for religious tolerance
The atheist struggle for equal rights is rarely recognized outside of active atheist communities. My research shows how discrimination against atheists fits with what I describe as a deeply rooted and coercive theistic and normative mindset that defines democratic societies and good citizenship as related to belief in a higher power.
Historians such as Leigh Eric Schmidt, David Sehat and Isaac Kramnick and Robert Laurence Moore have all written about religious oppression in the United States and its impact on atheists. These stories highlight how the stigma surrounding both atheism and open criticism of religion and religious oppression has often pressured atheists to hide their identities.
Yet there were – and still are – atheists, like Walter Plywaski, ready to openly challenge discrimination. Their stories are part of the larger fight for religious tolerance in the United States.