In Bowen v. Kendrick, 487 U.S. 589 (1988), the Supreme Court ruled that the 1981 Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) — which channels federal funds to religious organizations via nonprofit organizations that offer adolescent pregnancy prevention and care services — does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

AFLA gave grants to nonprofits involved with religious groups

AFLA requires nonprofits receiving funds for research and services related to preventing premarital adolescent sexual activity to involve religious groups as well as government agencies in their programs. Among the grant recipients in the 1980s were some organizations with institutional ties to religious denominations. In response, several taxpayers and groups filed a lawsuit.

Court said AFLA was religiously neutral

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist ruled that AFLA does not, on its face, violate the three prongs of the Lemon test from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The Court held that the legislation had a “legitimate secular purpose” — the prevention of teen pregnancy and the resulting social and economic costs.

Rehnquist explained that AFLA’s purpose and effect were neutral with respect to religion because religious affiliation was not a criterion in allocating funds. He reasoned that because the application for funds required groups to detail how the money would be spent, the government could ensure that the money was not allocated to advance religion, even if grants were made to religiously affiliated organizations. Although the third part of the Lemon test prohibits “excessive government entanglement” with religion, the Court determined that government monitoring of applications was not enough to violate the establishment clause.

Blackmun thought AFLA violated the First Amendment

In dissent, Justice Harry A. Blackmun — the author of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), protecting a woman’s right to choose an abortion — argued that the statute was a clear violation of the establishment clause. He asserted that the record made clear that funds were being used for religious teaching by teachers and counselors who were under the direction of religious authorities.

Bowen was an important case at the intersection of the controversial issues of abortion and religion. The legislation itself as well as the accommodationist outcome in the case signaled that strict separationism was giving way to a much closer relationship between government and religion.

This article was originally published in 2009. Artemus Ward is professor of political science faculty associate at the college of law at Northern Illinois University. Ward received his Ph.D. from the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University and served as a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee. He is an award-winning author of several books of the U.S. Supreme Court and his research and commentary have been featured in such outlets as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, NBC Nightly News, Fox News, and C-SPAN.

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