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Atheist Immigrant Wins Citizenship Despite Anti-War Beliefs

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(HOUSTON) -- An atheist Englishwoman who has been living in Houston as a permanent U.S. resident for more than 30 years nearly lost her shot at citizenship because of her pacifist beliefs and lack of religion, but the "power of the people and the power of the press" helped her clear a key hurdle to U.S. naturalization.

Margaret Doughty, 64, said her decision to pursue citizenship came after years of working as a literacy advocate and fighting for the disenfranchised.

"It just seemed, after living here after all of this time and enjoying the benefits and the challenges of living here, it was time," Margaret Doughty, 64, told ABC News.

"I've worked very hard, and I really work on initiatives that are about social justice and anti-poverty causes. It seemed, morally, that I shouldn't be an outsider working in this country, but an insider working inside."

Born in the small town of Tatsfield in Kent, England, the retired literacy advocate spent time volunteering around the world in her young adulthood, and ultimately settled with her family in Houston in 1980, she said.

She and her best friend, who was born in South Africa, decided recently to take the final step and become naturalized U.S. citizens.

They headed to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Houston and filled out the appropriate forms and ticked the appropriate boxes. They had to read a simple sentence in English to prove their language skills.

But the seemingly simple bureaucratic process hit a snag as she and an officer walked through her forms and reached the section about Doughty's willingness to take up arms in defense of the United States. Her friend complied and was sent through. It was there that Doughty, a lifelong pacifist, said no.

"When she got to the piece about bearing arms, the officer said, 'This is going to be a problem,'" Doughty recalled. "She said, 'You know, we're never going to ask you to fight. It's OK, you're an old woman,' almost like this is irrelevant. She suggested, and encouraged me to check the other box."

Doughty had even brought a typed statement on the matter, which read: "I cannot lie. I must be honest. The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or in the bearing of arms."

When asked whether she was objecting on religious grounds, Doughty said she was not: She was objecting on moral and ethical grounds.

"She said you aren't allowed to do that," Doughty recalled of the officer's comments. "That was the end of the interview."

Sent away and told a supervisor would intervene, Doughty waited patiently. Soon she received a call, and said she was told that "if there's anything you want to change, you can come back in."

She eventually returned to the office and, for a third time, was encouraged by the officer to change her statement.

"She swore me in, and then she encouraged me," she told ABC News. "I thought, 'You've just asked me not to lie. If I lied now and changed it, why would you want me as a citizen, if I had that moral code?' She said, 'If you change your mind now, I'll sign this, and you can go to your swearing-in ceremony.' I said, 'I can't do that.'"

The Houston Citizenship and Immigration Services office then responded to Doughty's conscientious objector claim by asking her to "Please submit a letter on official church stationery, attesting to the fact that you are a member in good standing and the church's official position on the bearing of arms."

But she has no church, or religious affiliation, and wasn't sure how to handle the predicament. She decided to take to Facebook to ask around for help, and soon was contacted by several legal support groups, including the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC) in Washington.

Both of these organizations spoke up on her behalf. On June 17, attorneys Monica Miller and Anthony Burgess of the AHCL wrote a letter on Doughty's behalf to the USCIS, outlining that she meets the status for a conscientious objector -- specifically, 8 USC § 1448, which states that "a conscientious objector 'who shows by clear and convincing evidence … that [s]he is opposed to the bearing of arms … by reason of religious … belief' may omit the pledge from her oath."

The Supreme Court has in the past included secular moral beliefs in these instances, they wrote.

Today was the deadline for Doughty to show that her objection was religiously based, but she received an email Thursday afternoon from immigration services, saying: "This Service hereby withdraws the request for evidence (RFE) issued on June 7, 2013. This Service accepts your detailed statement in satisfaction of the information requested by the RFE. Your application for naturalization has been approved."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has not responded to telephone and email requests for comment.

The agency offered no apology, she said, but is allowing her to move on to citizenship. She will attend a ceremony where she will become with a U.S. citizen next week, alongside her best friend.

"I am delighted with the outcome," Doughty said. "I'm incredibly pleased that I wasn't persuaded to just say it was OK."

"If these organizations had not come forward and drafted their outstanding letters, and explained the law and prior cases and outcomes, if that hadn't happened, if the media hadn't picked up on it, it may not have happened," she said.

"It's the power of the people and the power of the press that made this happen."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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