Bowen v. Roy

PETITIONER: Otis R. Bowen, Secretary of Health and Human Services; John R. Block, Secretary of Agriculture; Walter Cohen, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
RESPONDENT: Stephen J. Roy and Karen Miller
LOCATION: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare

DOCKET NO.: 84-780
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)

CITATION: 476 US 693 (1986)
ARGUED: Jan 14, 1986
DECIDED: Jun 11, 1986

Gary S. Gildin - on behalf of the appellees
Kenneth Steven Geller - on behalf of the appellants.,

Facts of the case

Stephen J. Roy and Karen Miller, along with their daughter Little Bird of Snow, were residents of Pennsylvania receiving benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Food Stamps programs. Roy and Miller refused to comply with the federal requirement that participants in these programs provide the social security numbers of all family members receiving benefits. They argued that obtaining a social security number for Little Bird would violate their Native American religious beliefs. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare terminated AFDC benefits paid for Little Bird and the parents sued, arguing that the free excessive clause of the First Amendment provided an exemption to the social security number requirement. At trial, Roy disclosed the Little Bird already had a social security number, and the court suggested the case was moot. Roy then argued that widespread use of the social security number would “rob the spirit” of Little Bird, violating their religious beliefs. The court restrained the government from denying benefits for Little Bird until she was 16 years old, but denied Roy’s request for damages.


Does the free exercise clause of the First Amendment provide an exception to the social security number requirement to receive state and federal welfare benefits?

Media for Bowen v. Roy

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 14, 1986 in Bowen v. Roy

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Bowen, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, against Roy.

Mr. Geller, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, this case involves a challenge to the constitutionality of two federal statutes that require applicants for welfare benefits to provide the government with their social security numbers as a condition on receiving those benefits.

Appellees claim that it would violate their rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment if they had to provide the Social Security number of their daughter, Little Bird of the Snow.

The District Court agreed with this claim and declare the statute unconstitutional and ordered the government to provide the welfare benefits without insisting that the appellees comply with the Social Security Number requirement.

We have taken a direct appeal to this Court.

Before turning to the facts of this case, I would like to mention very briefly an important aspect of the two federal programs that are involved here.

Both the aid to families with dependent children program and the food stamp program are obviously based on financial need, and the amount of the government grant is a function of family size and family income.

As a result, all earned and unearned income of each family member has to be counted in determining eligibility and the amount of benefits.

Therefore, under both programs, it is essential that benefit applicants furnish income and eligibility data for each member of the family, including children, and that we be able to verify that information for each member of the family.

Now, when appellee Stephen Roy applied for AFDC and food stamp benefits, he agreed to give the government his own Social Security Number and the Social Security Numbers of his wife and elder daughter, but he refused to give the Social Security Number of his younger daughter, Little Bird of the Snow.

Roy claimed that as a result of his religious beliefs, he considers Social Security Numbers to be part of the so-called Great Evil, because the numbers are used by computers, and therefore rob people's spirits.

Now, Roy testified that the evil of Social Security Numbers is related to their function as unique personal identifiers, and that if he had to obtain a Social Security Number for Little Bird of the Snow and provide it to the government, it would rob her spirit and deprive her of the ability to achieve greater power.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Geller, the Court below found that the claim was based on a sincere religious belief.

Your comments suggest that you think that that might not be the case.

Do you concede that it was the product of a sincere religious belief?

Kenneth Steven Geller:

My comment was simply to explain Roy's testimony.

We have not challenged in this Court.

We did challenge in the District Court.

We have not challenged in this Court that it is the product of a sincere religious belief, but I am sure it is sincere.

We have some doubts whether it is the product of a religious belief.

I think many people in our society have these sorts of concerns.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, do you challenge in this Court the finding of the District Court:

Kenneth Steven Geller:

No, we have not.

It is a futile exercise, we think, to challenge those sorts of findings.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

--Mr. Geller, I gather in fact the number of Little Bird of the Snow had been at some stage given to the government.

Kenneth Steven Geller:

Well, yes.

I was about to come to that, Justice Brennan.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:


Kenneth Steven Geller:

I am sure as this Court is aware from reading the briefs, there are a number of peculiar aspects to this case.