Bowen v. Roy

Bowen v. Roy turned on the distinction between government conduct that restricts the ability of individuals to freely exercise their religion and government conduct that is merely inconsistent with particular religious beliefs but nevertheless does nothing to burden them. In this case, the Supreme Court rejected a free exercise challenge to a government requirement that applicants for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) provide state welfare agencies with their Social Security numbers. A Native American family claimed that obtaining a Social Security number for their daughter and providing that number to the state would prevent her from attaining full spiritual power. The Court reaffirmed the importance of the distinction between freedom of individual religious belief, which is absolute, and the freedom of individual conduct, which is not. In this case, the Court found that the requirement for provision of Social Security numbers had no impact on the freedom of belief. In fact, the freedom at issue was not that of the AFDC applicant, but that of the government. The Court held that the Free Exercise Clause cannot be interpreted to require the government to act in ways that an individual believes will further his or her spiritual development. Significantly, a plurality of the Court indicated it would only require a rational basis for neutral, generally applicable laws governing benefits programs, which was a departure from the Court’s prior benefits cases such as Sherbert v. Verner and Thomas v. Review Board.

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