Bradfield v. Roberts, 175 U.S. 291 (1899)

2012-01-09 12:58:53

Bradfield v. Roberts is the first of only two Supreme Court cases that have addressed whether government funding of faith-based human services programs is constitutional. In Bradfield, a taxpayer sued the federal government challenging a congressional appropriation that funded the construction of a hospital in the District of Columbia that was owned and operated by the Sisters of Charity, a monastic order of the Catholic Church. Pursuant to the appropriation, city officials from the District of Columbia and the hospital directors entered into an agreement providing that the hospital would care for indigent city patients in exchange for construction of the hospital and continued payments for patient care. The taxpayer alleged that the appropriation violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that ‘‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’’ In other words, the taxpayer asserted that the arrangement violated the separation between church and state.

The Court upheld the appropriation and ruled against the taxpayer. Writing for the Court, Justice Peckham reasoned that the hospital was incorporated as a secular institution. According to the Court, it was thus irrelevant that the Roman Catholic Church might influence the management of the hospital. Such influence could not ‘‘alter the legal character of the corporation’’ as defined in its charter. Rather, the hospital was an ‘‘ordinary private corporation’’ whose secular duties and rights were set forth in the legal documents of incorporation. Moreover, there was no allegation that the hospital discriminated on the basis of religion or in violation of its charter.

The Court relied on the Bradfield decision in 1988 in Bowen v. Kendrick, the only other Supreme Court decision addressing government funding of faith-based human service programs. In Kendrick, the Court upheld a federal statute that provided government grants to religious organizations for the counseling of pregnant teenagers. Citing to Bradfield, the Kendrick Court stated that ‘‘this Court has never held that religious institutions are disabled by the First Amendment from participating in publicly sponsored social welfare programs.’’ The Court determined that Bradfield remained good law, especially given this country’s long history of interdependency between the government and religious organizations in providing for the needy.

Since 1996, when the American welfare system was reformed, Bradfield has taken on increased importance. Among other things, the 1996 welfare legislation authorized the granting of federal funds to faith-based organizations that provide welfare-related social services. This provision is commonly called ‘‘Charitable Choice.’’ Opponents of Charitable Choice contend that Charitable Choice violates the separation of church and state. Proponents of Charitable Choice believe that faith-based organizations are particularly effective in combating social problems, and they are seeking to expand Charitable Choice programs to a wide array of federal human service programs. Bradfield provides legal support for these Charitable Choice programs. However, in both Bradfield and Kendrick, the faithbased organizations at issue were not using government funds to advance their religious missions. For instance, the hospital in Bradfield was not conducting religious services or discriminating against nonbelievers. Thus, Bradfield does not answer the question as to whether a government grant for social services that also flows to religious activities is constitutional. This question remains to be resolved by the Supreme Court.


References and Further Reading

  • Gilman, Michele, ‘Charitable Choice’ and the Accountability Challenge: Reconciling the Need for Regulation with the First Amendment Religion Clauses, Vanderbilt Law Review 55 (2002): 3:799–888
  • Rotunda, Ronald, and John E. Nowak. Nowak and Rotunda’s Hornbook on Constitutional Law. 7th ed. St. Paul, MN: West, 2004

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589 (1988); Charitable Choice; Establishment Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence