476 U.S. 693 (1986), 84-780, Bowen v. Roy

Docket Nº:No. 84-780
Citation:476 U.S. 693, 106 S.Ct. 2147, 90 L.Ed.2d 735, 54 U.S.L.W. 4603
Party Name:Bowen v. Roy
Case Date:June 11, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 693

476 U.S. 693 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 2147, 90 L.Ed.2d 735, 54 U.S.L.W. 4603

Bowen

v.

Roy

No. 84-780

United States Supreme Court

June 11, 1986

Argued January 14, 1986

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE

MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Syllabus

Appellees applied for and received benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and the Food Stamp program. They refused, however, to comply with the federal statutory requirements that participants in those programs furnish the state welfare agencies who administer the programs with their Social Security numbers and those of each member of their household as a condition of receiving benefits, and that each state agency utilize those numbers in administering the programs. Appellees contended that obtaining a Social Security number for their 2-year-old daughter would violate their Native American religious beliefs. Thereafter, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare terminated AFDC benefits [106 S.Ct. 2149] payable to appellees on the child's behalf and instituted proceedings to reduce the level of food stamps that appellees' household was receiving. Appellees then filed an action in Federal District Court, claiming that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment entitled them to an exemption from the Social Security number requirements, and requesting injunctive and other relief. Following a trial in which it was disclosed that the child had in fact been assigned a Social Security number, the court held that the public interest in maintaining an efficient and fraud-resistant system could be met without requiring a Social Security number for the child. The court then enjoined the Secretary of Health and Human Services from using and disseminating the Social Security number issued in the child's name, and also enjoined the federal and state defendants from denying appellees benefits, until the child's 16th birthday, because of their refusal to provide a Social Security number for her.

Held: The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded.

590 F.Supp. 600, vacated and remanded.

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, concluding that the statutory requirement that a state agency utilize Social Security numbers in administering the programs in question does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. That Clause affords an individual protection from certain forms of governmental compulsion, but does not afford an individual a right to dictate the conduct of the Government's internal procedures. The Government's

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use of a Social Security number for appellees' child does not itself impair appellees' freedom to exercise their religion. Pp. 699-701.

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, joined by JUSTICE POWELL and JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded in Part III that the statutory requirement that applicants provide a Social Security number as a condition of eligibility for the benefits in question does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. That requirement is facially neutral in religious terms, applies to all applicants for the benefits involved, and clearly promotes a legitimate and important public interest. Preventing fraud in these benefit programs is an important goal, and the Social Security number requirement is a reasonable means of promoting that goal. Government regulation that indirectly and incidentally calls for a choice between securing a governmental benefit and adherence to religious beliefs is wholly different from governmental action or legislation that criminalizes religiously inspired activity or compels conduct that some find objectionable for religious reasons. Pp. 701-712.

BURGER, C.J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, post, p. 712. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the result, post, p. 716. O'CONNOR, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 724. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 733.

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BURGER, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I and II, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which JUSTICE POWELL and JUSTICE REHNQUIST join.

The question presented is whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment [106 S.Ct. 2150] compels the Government to accommodate a religiously based objection to the statutory requirements that a Social Security number be provided by an applicant seeking to receive certain welfare benefits, and that the States use these numbers in administering the benefit programs.

I

Appellees Stephen J. Roy and Karen Miller applied for and received benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and the Food Stamp program. They refused to comply, however, with the requirement, contained in 42 U.S.C. § 602(a)(25)1 and 7 U.S.C. § 2025(e), that participants in these programs furnish their state welfare agencies with the Social Security numbers of the members of their household as a condition of receiving benefits. Appellees contended that obtaining a Social Security number for their 2-year-old daughter, Little Bird of the Snow, would violate their Native American religious beliefs. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare thereafter terminated AFDC and medical benefits payable to appellees on the child's behalf and instituted proceedings to reduce the level of food stamps that appellees' household was receiving. Appellees then filed this action against the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of Agriculture, arguing that the Free Exercise Clause entitled them to an exemption from the Social Security number requirement. In their complaint,

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appellees stated that "[t]he sole basis" for the denial of welfare benefits was "Mr. Roy's refusal to obtain a Social Security Number for Little Bird of the Snow," and thus requested injunctive relief, damages, and benefits. In the statement of "undisputed facts," the parties agreed that Little Bird of the Snow did not have a Social Security number.

At trial, Roy testified that he had recently developed a religious objection to obtaining a Social Security number for Little Bird of the Snow.2 Roy is a Native American descended from the Abenaki Tribe, and he asserts a religious belief that control over one's life is essential to spiritual purity, and indispensable to "becoming a holy person." Based on recent conversations with an Abenaki chief, Roy believes that technology is "robbing the spirit of man." In order to prepare his daughter for greater spiritual power, therefore, Roy testified to his belief that he must keep her person and spirit unique, and that the uniqueness of the Social Security number as an identifier, coupled with the other uses of the number over which she has no control, will serve to "rob the spirit" of his daughter and prevent her from attaining greater spiritual power.

For purposes of determining the breadth of Roy's religious concerns, the trial judge raised the possibility of using the phonetics of his daughter's name to derive a Social Security number. Although Roy saw "a lot of good" in this suggestion, he stated it would violate his religious beliefs because the special number still would apply uniquely and identify her. Roy also testified that his religious objection would not be satisfied even if the Social Security Administration appended the daughter's full tribal name to her Social Security number.

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In Roy's own testimony, he emphasized the evil that would flow simply from obtaining a number.3 On the last day of trial, however, a federal officer inquired [106 S.Ct. 2151] whether Little Bird of the Snow already had a Social Security number; he learned that a number had been assigned -- under first name "Little," middle name "Bird of the Snow," and last name "Roy."

The Government at this point suggested that the case had become moot, because, under Roy's beliefs, Little Bird of the Snow's spirit had already been "robbed." Roy, however, was recalled to the stand and testified that her spirit would be robbed only by "use" of the number. Since no known use of the number had yet been made, Roy expressed his belief that her spirit had not been damaged. The District Court concluded that the case was not moot because of Roy's beliefs regarding "use" of the number. See Roy v. Cohen, 590 F.Supp. 600, 605 (MD Pa.1984) (finding of fact 33) ("Roy believes that the establishment of a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow, without more, has not `robbed her spirit,' but widespread use of the social security number by the federal or state governments in their computer systems would have that effect").

After hearing all of the testimony, the District Court denied appellees' request for damages and benefits, but granted injunctive relief. Based on the testimony of the Government's experts and the obvious fact that many people share certain names, the District Court found that

[u]tilization in

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the computer system of the name of a benefit recipient alone frequently is not sufficient to ensure the proper payment of benefits.

The court nevertheless concluded that the public

interest in maintaining an efficient and fraud resistant system can be met without requiring use of a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow,

elaborating:

It appears to the Court that the harm that the Government might suffer if [appellees] prevailed in this case would...

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