Barnette's Big Blunder

59 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2003


Among the most celebrated statements ever issued in a Supreme Court opinion is Justice Robert Jackson's resounding declaration in Barnette v. West Virginia Board that "[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." By using the preposition "or" rather than "and," Jackson asserted two constitutional prohibitions: government may not force citizens to confess an orthodoxy, but government may also not prescribe any orthodoxy. Upon reflection, however, the "no prescription" prohibition is manifestly untenable, and neither Justices nor scholars have ever tried to apply it in any consistent way. Nonetheless, this impossible prohibition exerts a powerful and unfortunate rhetorical influence over constitutional discourse: recent examples discussed in the article include work by respected legal scholars including Kent Greenawalt and Michael McConnell and judicial decisions including the recent Newdow decision on the Pledge of Allegiance.

This article first explains why the "no prescription" prohibition could not possibly be taken at face value. The article then considers the various ways in which courts and scholars have tried to qualify or reinterpret that prohibition (such as by limiting the prohibition to religion), and it argues that these efforts do not succeed in avoiding the decisive objections to a "no prescribed orthodoxy" principle. Our constitutional discourse would be more honest and cogent, the article concludes, if Barnette's "no prescription" principle were excised "root and branch."

Keywords: Constitutional Law, First Amendment

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Smith, Steven Douglas, Barnette's Big Blunder. Available at SSRN: or

Steven Douglas Smith (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-7969 (Phone)
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