While I am certainly not a legal scholar, I have tried to create a basic outline for the development of the compelling interest doctrine.
In Prince v Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court considered whether the states could make laws that incidentally prevented parents from guiding their children's religious upbringing. The Court wrote that parents do have natural rights to guide their children, so long as those rights do not infringe on the children's rights to grow up healthy and society's rights to not have their rights violated. As examples, parents may not subject their children or society to disease and claim that they're just practicing their religion. The Court added that to infringe on parents, society-acting through the state-must prove "a clear and present danger." Without meeting that standard, state law would be unconstitutional if it violated parental rights. This case rested on the notions that parents have Constitutional rights (e.g., religion and life), children have some rights (e.g., life), and the people in society have rights (e.g., religion and life). Government may infringe on one's rights only to protect the rights of the others. As Mark Twain once said, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."
In Bates v. Little Rock (1958), the Court considered whether the government could require nonprofit groups to give the government a list of all members, for the purposes of tax records. The Court wrote, "the City of Little Rock has not shown that there is a compelling reason or a justifiable cause for requiring the defendant to produce the names of its members and the names of its contributors." This case marked a progress for compelling interests in that it allowed there could be state reasons for violating rights. There was now a potential that the state's desire to track taxes could legally violate organizational members' rights to remain anonymous. In such a case, the clear violation of 1st Amendment rights to privacy would be violated not because of the threat to other people's rights, but because the government's interest in collecting taxes might be more important than the 1st Amendment.
In 1960, the case of Shelton v Tucker lead to this conclusion: "Where official action is claimed to invade...rights, the controlling inquiry is whether such action is justifiable on the basis of a superior governmental interest to which such individual rights must yield." The state must prove, "first, whether the investigation relates to a legitimate governmental purpose; second, whether, judged in the light of that purpose, the questioned action has substantial relevance thereto." This case further expanded compelling interests by saying that sometimes, "individual rights must yield" to the government, if the law deals with a legitimate government purpose and the law actually addresses that purpose. So, in all further cases, we should first assess whether the 'interest' is a legitimate government purpose.
In both Bates and Shelton, the Court set a dangerous path. The Court reasoned that the state could violate some rights, for reasons more important than rights (e.g., taxes), so long as the government was not specifically trying to infringe on rights. The problem with that logic is that while the state may not presently want to use tax records to infringe on rights, once the state has the information, it could later use it to violate rights. Further, the Court had conlcuded that when the founders wrote, "Congress shall make no law infringing...," they really meant "...unless it's important."
A year after Shelton, the Court ruled in Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), that government can stop freedom of religion, and the Court used the words "compelling state interest." The Court asked, "What then is the compelling state interest which impels Pennsylvania to impede appellants' freedom of worship?" The Court decided the state could sometimes limit freedom of worship because there was a "compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State's constitutional power to regulate."
Today, the government can limit almost any freedom in the name of regulation and state interests. If the government doesn't want a church built, it uses zoning regulations. The states violate Equal Protection rights by claiming a more important interest in diversity. There is even an education professor at Stanford, Rob Reich, who is proposing that the state's (society's) interest in children-and the children's rights to-becoming independent requires students attend public school and not private school, because public school is more likely to teach the children ideas the parents don't want the children hearing.
The question is: where could
it possibly end? Once interests trump rights, do rights mean much?