Musings on the Third Amendment

The third amendment in the Bill of Rights: The third amendment to the U.S. Constitution has always been the most oddly specific one. The rest of the first 10 involve broad, sweeping principles. A wide, flat foundation upon which you can build a coherent and consistent set of laws. But the third amendment seems targeted at one specific issue.

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

No doubt, this was a direct response to the Quartering act from the British Parliament. But because it is so narrow in its scope, it has been one of the least cited and most rarely used entries in the bill of rights.

But I believe that this amendment hints at a larger, much more significant fundamental right that’s held by the citizens. Let’s explore the edges of this amendment with some thought experiments:

Suppose you owned a house in Alaska. During the winter, some members of the national guard came by and demanded that you house and feed them. They said that if you turn them away, they will surely die of exposure.

According to the third amendment, you are not obligated to do so. To turn them away would be tantamount to murder. But the constitution is very clear here. You do not have to put them up if you choose not to. This is as iron clad as any amendment that follows the second and first ones…

Ok, suppose the U.S. captured the next successor to lead the Taliban. But they need to house him in your basement until suitable transport can be arranged. Do you have to comply?

The third amendment only talks about soldiers, but I believe the spirit of the amendment says “No!”.

What if he was injured and would die unless you take care of him? Would it be immoral to turn him away? Probably. Would it legal from a constitutional standpoint? That depends on how finely you slice the “No Soldier…” part. I suppose a member of the Taliban could be thought of as a soldier.

Okay, so what if he was merely an informant? Or a wealthy oil executive who is being sought by the Taliban? Do you have to put him up? What if it’s his whole family?

Now mind you, I’m not asking if you would put them up. I’m only dealing with the constitutionality here. The ethics and morality of your decision do not come in to play. The only question I’m asking is: “can the government compel you to provide food and shelter for these people?”

I believe the spirit of this amendment says that you may not be compelled to. To be less specific, we only need to change 1 word:

No person shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

There is a basic right at work here: that a man can look after his house as he sees fit and may not have it used as an instrument of the government. The government may not assign people to that house to be provided for without the owner’s consent.

This is in line with a man’s right to speak and worship freely, to defend himself and not have his property searched or seized.

So how do we define a man’s property? His house? It’s been said that your body is a temple. Is it not also your house? Is it not the ultimate, indivisible unit of your property? Does the third amendment extend to your person?

So suppose NASA discovered an alien life form. The incubator broke down and the only way to keep this tiny creature alive was to attach it to your abdomen. Could NASA force you to comply? This magnificent creature would surely perish if you did not help, but if you didn’t want to, could the government make you?

Suppose the alien had been attached to your abdomen while you were sleeping. Could the government make you leave it there? What if the alien pinned you down and forcibly attached one of its young to your body?

What if it wasn’t an alien at all; but instead an evil human. What if you were a woman and this human implanted its young inside your abdomen? Can you be compelled to leave it there? Can you be required to quarter his soldier until it can live on its own?

So why am I writing about this? Do I expect the supreme court to ask me to present my case about the third amendment as it applies to a person’s body? Of course not! (Although I wouldn’t mind if Justice Scalia called it a bunch of Hinkery Peccary… that would be cool!) The word Soldier is there and the amendment is very specific.

But the argument is frequently made on the right that they’re fighting for life and that the other side has …well nothing — so they must enjoy killing babies. I’m writing this to point out that there are 2 very fundamental, opposing rights at work here. It’s not at all obvious which one should win. There are times where it is legal to cause the death of another human. These times are distasteful but a necessary part of crafting and holding together an imperfect society. There are times where one person’s rights are overridden by another’s. There are times where one side or the other feels (justifiably) wronged. There are times when both sides cannot be satisfied at the same time. The best way to deal with these cases is nearly always to avoid them in the first place.

To be very clear, NO ONE likes killing babies. I would not personally choose to have an abortion. But I believe the spirit of the constitution says very clearly to the government: “It’s not your call!”

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