The Constitutional Right Not to Kill

62 Emory Law Journal 121 (2012)

59 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2012 Last revised: 22 Feb 2013

See all articles by Mark Rienzi

Mark Rienzi

Catholic University of America - Columbus School of Law

Date Written: March 17, 2012


Federal and state governments participate in and/or permit a variety of different types of killings. These include military operations, capital punishment, assisted suicide, abortion and self-defense or defense of others. In a pluralistic society, it is no surprise that there will be some members of the population who refuse to participate in some or all of these types of killings.

The question of how governments should treat such refusals is older than the Republic itself. Since colonial times, the answer to this question has been driven largely by statutory protections, with the Constitution playing a smaller role, particularly since the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith.

This Article offers a new answer to this very old question: a federal constitutional right not to kill, protected by the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Court’s substantive due process cases suggest that certain unenumerated rights can qualify for constitutional protection when they are “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.” This Article reviews the government’s historical ability to force unwilling citizens to participate in government-sanctioned killings across a variety of contexts, and concludes that the right not to kill passes the Court’s stated tests, and does so even better than previously recognized rights. The right not to kill also fits squarely within the zone of individual decision making protected by the Court’s decisions in Casey and Lawrence.

Recognition of a constitutional right, of course, does not mean that the right can never be infringed. Rather, as with most rights, the constitutional right not to kill can presumably be trumped by a sufficiently compelling government interest and a narrowly tailored law. In the vast majority of cases, however, the government will not be able to meet this test, leaving individuals free to decide for themselves whether they are willing to participate in government-sanctioned killings.

Keywords: due process, constitutional rights, conscience, draft, conscription, death penalty, capital punishment, religion, Conscientious Objector, Fourteenth Amendment, free exercise, religion

Suggested Citation

Rienzi, Mark, The Constitutional Right Not to Kill (March 17, 2012). 62 Emory Law Journal 121 (2012), Available at SSRN: or

Mark Rienzi (Contact Author)

Catholic University of America - Columbus School of Law ( email )

3600 John McCormack Rd., NE
Washington, DC 20064
United States

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