The Religious Freedom Page

Bowen v. Roy

476 U.S. 693 (1986)

Facts of the Case:

Petitioners were Native Americans who sought financial assistance under Aid for Families with Dependent Children and the Food Stamp program. In order to receive benefits for their child, they were forced to supply agents with the child's Social Security number. The parents refused to do so claiming that obtaining a number for their child would violate their religious beliefs. As a result, their AFDC benefits were terminated and their Food Stamp payments were reduced. The parents sued because they believed that the government had infringed on their rights to practice their religion.


In an 8-1 decision, the Court decided that the government was permitted to require beneficiaries to supply it with their Social Security numbers.

Majority Opinion: (Chief Justice Burger)

The petitioners object to the government's using the child's Social Security number, which means that they want the government to conduct its internal affairs in accordance with their personal religious views. The government's use of a Social Security number for the child in no way hampers his ability to "believe, express, or exercise" his religion. There is no constitutional requirement that no burdens be placed on religions. The requirement that applicants provide their Social Security numbers is religiously neutral and used to facilitate the disbursement of payments. The Court has traditionally recognized a distinction between government compulsion and conditions placed on receiving government benefits. "In the enforcement of a facially neutral and uniformly applicable requirement for the administration of welfare programs reaching many millions of people, the Government is entitled to wide latitude." The diversity of the country's religious faiths prevent the government from imposing certain "incidental neutral restraints" on certain religions.


This decision gives the government greater freedom to infringe on the beliefs of certain individuals provided that it is done neutrally and is done to meet a legitimate interest. Once again, the Court uses to variety of religious faiths to demonstrate the impossibility of not encroaching on the rights of any of them.

Copyright © The Religious Freedom Page.