Skip to content

Nikolas Bowie, The Government Could Not Work Doctrine, 105 Va. L. Rev. 1 (2019).

Abstract: For over two thousand years, conscientious people from Plato to Gandhi have grappled with the dilemma of how to respond when a government orders you to do something you disagree with — say, pay a tax that will fund a war. Perhaps the most famous answer comes from the book of Matthew, when Jesus of Nazareth declared, "Render . . . unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." One way to interpret this declaration contends that you should always comply with fairly imposed civil obligations — at least until you can persuade others to accommodate your views. A second argues that if conscience so dictates, you should disobey the government and accept whatever punishment it doles in return. Recently, a group of constitutional lawyers have offered a third option: Sue the government. Adopting a libertarian interpretation of the First Amendment's protection of free speech and religious exercise, these lawyers argue that it is presumptively unconstitutional for the government ever to put one's moral obligations in conflict with one's civil obligations. As evidence, they draw on cases such as West Virginia v. Barnette, in which the Supreme Court struck down a regulation that compelled objecting school children to recite the pledge of allegiance. In the past few years these lawyers have asked the Court to extend Barnette's logic to petitioners who object to birth control, labor unions, vaccinations, same-sex marriage, and all kinds of politically charged topics. The Supreme Court has been sympathetic to these lawyers, in one case declaring that the First Amendment generally "prevent[s] the government from compelling individuals to express certain views or pay subsidies for speech to which they object." The Court has even acted on this declaration to invalidate laws that tax public-sector employees and donate the revenue to politically active labor unions. But this declaration is wrong. Treating compulsory laws as presumptively invalid not only contradicts historical practice, it's also at odds with the Court's precedent in nearly every other constitutional context. The First Amendment, along with the rest of the Constitution, was adopted to create a functional government out of the embers of a failing state. For any government to function — especially in a politically and religiously pluralistic society like the United States — it must be able to compel residents to do all sorts of things a minority might disagree with, from paying taxes and obeying generally applicable laws to accepting conditions on public benefits. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has rejected claims brought under every clause of the First Amendment (and many other articles of the Constitution) whenever it has realized that "government would not work" were it constitutionally prohibited from compelling citizens to do or pay for things they might not like. Even the author of Barnette recognized the danger of converting the First Amendment into a suicide pact. This Article molds these Supreme Court moments of clarity into a coherent doctrine, which I call the "government could not work" doctrine. Analyzing a wide variety of cases, I conclude that objectionable compulsion, in and of itself, should not make a law presumptively unconstitutional, triggering the so-called strict scrutiny that the Court currently applies when a person objects to subsidizing the political activity of a labor union. As the Court has declared throughout its history — with a brief exception between about 1940 and 1980 — applying such strict scrutiny every time a person challenges a compulsory law would "cripple" the government. In other words, the First Amendment doesn't render American citizens uniquely exempt from the universal dilemma of having to decide whether to abide by a disagreeable law. The authors of the First Amendment wanted a government that tolerated dissent, not a government that would be incapacitated by it.