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 ...

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