Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Unenumerated Constitutional Rights and Unenumerated Biblical Obligations: A Preliminary Study in Comparative Hermeneutics

Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Unenumerated Constitutional Rights and Unenumerated Biblical Obligations: A Preliminary Study in Comparative Hermeneutics

Article excerpt


In 1986, Robert Cover wrote of an "explosion of legal scholarship placing interpretation at the crux of the enterprise of law."(1) As examples of this phenomenon, Cover cited the works of such influential scholars as Ronald Dworkin(2) and James Boyd White,(3) as well as law review symposia,(4) which, Cover noted, focused on "interpretation" or "hermeneutics."(5) As part of the continuing emphasis on hermeneutics in constitutional interpretation, a body of literature has emerged comparing constitutional textual analysis to Biblical hermeneutics.(6) This scholarship has been based on the recognition that, like the Constitution, the Bible functions as an authoritative legal text that must be interpreted in order to serve as the foundation for a living community.

This Essay looks at a basic hermeneutic device common to both Biblical and constitutional interpretation, the identification of unenumerated principles through reference to textually enumerated principles. The Essay observes that, in addition to the numerous obligations listed in the Torah, legal authorities have interpreted the Torah to impose many other obligations not enumerated in the text. The Essay suggests that a similar methodology to that employed in Jewish law has been applied to the United States Constitution to derive rights beyond those enumerated in the text. The Essay thus examines the ways in which American judges and constitutional scholars have relied on forms of textual analysis that find analogues in the interpretation of the Torah by Jewish legal authorities.


Despite its function as the guarantor of individual rights against infringement by the government, the United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is surprisingly limited in its enumeration of substantive rights.(7) Nevertheless, the United States Supreme Court has consistently held that the Constitution protects a number of rights beyond those listed in the text. To support these conclusions, the Court has engaged in a variety of interpretive techniques that, to a significant extent, parallel various methods of Biblical interpretation.

In the 1923 case of Meyer v. Nebraska,(8) the Supreme Court was faced with a challenge to a Nebraska state law which prohibited the teaching of "any language other than the English language" prior to high school.(9) Though the text of the Constitution does not explicitly protect the right to education, the Court found that such a right is guaranteed by the Constitution, and held that the Nebraska statute violated the individual's right to pursue and select a reasonable and beneficial means of education.

In recognizing this unnamed right, the Court relied on and interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees that "[n]o State shall ... deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."(10) Focusing on the ambiguity of the word "liberty," the Court understood the Fourteenth Amendment to protect a broad range of rights, including

   [w]ithout doubt ... not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the
   right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common
   occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a
   home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his
   own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at
   common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free

Turning to education, the Court stated that "[t]he American people have always regarded education and acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance which should be diligently promoted."(12) Therefore, the Court concluded that the teacher's "right thus to teach and the right of parents to engage him so to instruct their children ... are within the liberty of the Amendment. …

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