The question presented is whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment compels the Government to accommodate a religiously based objection to the statutory requirements that a Social Security number be provided by an applicant seeking to receive certain welfare benefits and that the States use these numbers in administering the benefit programs.
Appellees Stephen J. Roy and Karen Miller applied for and received benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and the Food Stamp program. They refused to comply, however, with the requirement, contained in 42 U. S. C. § 602(a)(25)
At trial, Roy testified that he had recently developed a religious objection to obtaining a Social Security number for Little Bird of the Snow.
For purposes of determining the breadth of Roy's religious concerns, the trial judge raised the possibility of using the phonetics of his daughter's name to derive a Social Security number. Although Roy saw "a lot of good" in this suggestion, he stated it would violate his religious beliefs because the special number still would apply uniquely and identify her. Roy also testified that his religious objection would not be satisfied even if the Social Security Administration appended the daughter's full tribal name to her Social Security number.
The Government at this point suggested that the case had become moot because, under Roy's beliefs, Little Bird of the Snow's spirit had already been "robbed." Roy, however, was recalled to the stand and testified that her spirit would be robbed only by "use" of the number. Since no known use of the number had yet been made, Roy expressed his belief that her spirit had not been damaged. The District Court concluded that the case was not moot because of Roy's beliefs regarding "use" of the number. See Roy v. Cohen, 590 F.Supp. 600, 605 (MD Pa. 1984) (finding of fact 33) ("Roy believes that the establishment of a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow, without more, has not `robbed her spirit,' but widespread use of the social security number by the federal or state governments in their computer systems would have that effect").
After hearing all of the testimony, the District Court denied appellees' request for damages and benefits, but granted injunctive relief. Based on the testimony of the Government's experts and the obvious fact that many people share certain names, the District Court found that "[u]tilization in
Citing our decision in United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982), the court entered an injunction containing two basic components. First, the Secretary of Health and Human Services was "permanently restrained from making any use of the social security number which was issued in the name of Little Bird of the Snow Roy and from disseminating the number to any agency, individual, business entity, or any other third party." Second, the federal and state defendants were enjoined until Little Bird of the Snow's 16th birthday from denying Roy cash assistance, medical assistance, and food stamps "because of the [appellees'] refusal to provide a social security number for her."
We noted probable jurisdiction, 472 U.S. 1016 (1985), and we vacate and remand.
Appellees raise a constitutional challenge to two features of the statutory scheme here.
Our cases have long recognized a distinction between the freedom of individual belief, which is absolute, and the freedom of individual conduct, which is not absolute. This case implicates only the latter concern. Roy objects to the statutory requirement that state agencies "shall utilize" Social Security numbers not because it places any restriction on what he may believe or what he may do, but because he believes the use of the number may harm his daughter's spirit.
Never to our knowledge has the Court interpreted the First Amendment to require the Government itself to behave in ways that the individual believes will further his or her spiritual development or that of his or her family. The Free Exercise Clause simply cannot be understood to require the Government to conduct its own internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of particular citizens. Just as the Government may not insist that appellees engage in
As a result, Roy may no more prevail on his religious objection to the Government's use of a Social Security number for his daughter than he could on a sincere religious objection to the size or color of the Government's filing cabinets. The Free Exercise Clause affords an individual protection from certain forms of governmental compulsion; it does not afford an individual a right to dictate the conduct of the Government's internal procedures.
As Roy points out, eight years ago Congress passed a Joint Resolution concerning American Indian religious freedom that provides guidance with respect to this case. As currently codified, the Resolution provides:
That Resolution — with its emphasis on protecting the freedom to believe, express, and exercise a religion — accurately identifies the mission of the Free Exercise Clause itself. The Federal Government's use of a Social Security number for Little Bird of the Snow does not itself in any degree impair Roy's "freedom to believe, express, and exercise" his religion.
Roy also challenges Congress' requirement that a state AFDC plan "must . . . provide (A) that, as a condition of eligibility under the plan, each applicant for or recipient of aid shall furnish to the State agency his social security account number." 42 U. S. C. § 602(a)(25) (emphasis added).
This is far removed from the historical instances of religious persecution and intolerance that gave concern to those who drafted the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. See generally M. Malbin, Religion and Politics: The Intentions of the Authors of the First Amendment (1978). We are not unmindful of the importance of many government benefits today or of the value of sincerely held religious beliefs.
This distinction is clearly revealed in the Court's opinions. Decisions rejecting religiously based challenges have often recited the fact that a mere denial of a governmental benefit by a uniformly applicable statute does not constitute infringement of religious liberty. In Hamilton v. Regents of University of California, 293 U.S. 245 (1934), for example, the Court rejected a religious challenge by students to military courses required as part of their curriculum, explaining:
In cases upholding First Amendment challenges, on the other hand, the Court has often relied on the showing that compulsion of certain activity with religious significance was involved.
The distinction between governmental compulsion and conditions relating to governmental benefits contained in these two cases was emphasized by JUSTICE BRENNAN in his concurring opinion in Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963):
We conclude then that government regulation that indirectly and incidentally calls for a choice between securing a governmental benefit and adherence to religious beliefs is wholly different from governmental action or legislation that criminalizes religiously inspired activity or inescapably compels conduct that some find objectionable for religious reasons. Although the denial of government benefits over religious objection can raise serious Free Exercise problems, these two very different forms of government action are not governed by the same constitutional standard. A governmental burden on religious liberty is not insulated from review simply because it is indirect, Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707, 717-718 (1981) (citing Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S., at 404);
The general governmental interests involved here buttress this conclusion. Governments today grant a broad range of benefits; inescapably at the same time the administration of complex programs requires certain conditions and restrictions. Although in some situations a mechanism for individual consideration will be created, a policy decision by a government that it wishes to treat all applicants alike and that it does not wish to become involved in case-by-case inquiries into the genuineness of each religious objection to such condition or restrictions is entitled to substantial deference. Moreover, legitimate interests are implicated in the need to avoid any appearance of favoring religious over nonreligious applicants.
The test applied in cases like Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), is not appropriate in this setting. 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 Government should not be put to the strict test applied by the District Court; that standard required the Government to justify enforcement of the use of Social Security number requirement as the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling state interest.
We reject appellees' contention that Sherbert and Thomas compel affirmance. The statutory conditions at issue in those cases provided that a person was not eligible for unemployment compensation benefits if, "without good cause," he had quit work or refused available work. The "good cause" standard created a mechanism for individualized exemptions. If a state creates such a mechanism, its refusal to extend an exemption to an instance of religious hardship suggests a discriminatory intent. Thus, as was urged in Thomas, to consider a religiously motivated resignation to be "without good cause" tends to exhibit hostility, not neutrality, towards religion. See Brief for Petitioner 15, and Brief for American Jewish Congress as Amicus Curiae 11, in Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Div., O. T. 1979, No. 79-952. See also Sherbert, supra, at 401-402, n. 4; United States v. Lee, 455 U. S., at 264, n. 3 (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment) (Thomas and Sherbert may be viewed "as a protection against unequal treatment rather than a grant of favored treatment for the members of the religious sect"). In those cases, therefore, it was appropriate to require the State to demonstrate a compelling reason for denying the requested exemption.
Here there is nothing whatever suggesting antagonism by Congress towards religion generally or towards any particular religious beliefs. The requirement that applicants provide a Social Security number is facially neutral and applies to all applicants for the benefits involved. Congress has made no provision for individual exemptions to the requirement in the two statutes in question. Indeed, to the contrary, Congress has specified that a state AFDC plan "must. . . provide (A) that, as a condition of eligibility under the plan, each applicant for or recipient of aid shall furnish to the
The Social Security number requirement clearly promotes a legitimate and important public interest. No one can doubt that preventing fraud in these benefits programs is an important goal. As Representative Richmond explained in support of the bill that made the Social Security number requirement mandatory for the Food Stamp program:
We also think it plain that the Social Security number requirement is a reasonable means of promoting that goal. The programs at issue are of truly staggering magnitude. Each year roughly 3.8 million families receive $7.8 billion through federally funded AFDC programs and 20 million persons receive $11 billion in food stamps. The Social Security program itself is the largest domestic governmental program in the United States today, distributing approximately $51 billion monthly to 36 million recipients. Because of the tremendous administrative problems associated with managing programs of this size, the District Court found:
Social Security numbers are unique numerical identifiers and are used pervasively in these programs. The numbers are used, for example, to keep track of persons no longer entitled to receive food stamps because of past fraud or abuses of the program. Moreover, the existence of this unique numerical identifier creates opportunities for ferreting out fraudulent applications through computer "matching" techniques. One investigation, "Project Match," compared federal employee files against AFDC and Medicaid files to determine instances of Government employees receiving welfare benefits improperly. Data from 26 States were examined, and 9,000 individuals were identified as receiving duplicate welfare payments. While undoubtedly some fraud escapes detection in spite of such investigations, the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, known more popularly as the "Grace Commission,"
The importance of the Social Security number to these matching techniques is illustrated by the facts of this case. The District Court found that "efficient operation of these [matching] programs requires the use of computer systems that utilize unique numerical identifiers such as the social security number." 590 F. Supp., at 606. It further found that exempting even appellees alone from this requirement could result in "one or perhaps a few individuals . . . fraudulently obtain[ing] welfare benefits," id., at 612, a prospect the court termed "remote." Id., at 613. The District Court's assessment of this probability seems quite dubious.
As the Court has recognized before, given the diversity of beliefs in our pluralistic society and the necessity of providing governments with sufficient operating latitude, some incidental neutral restraints on the free exercise of religion are inescapable. As a matter of legislative policy, a legislature might decide to make religious accommodations to a general and neutral system of awarding benefits,
The judgment of the District Court is vacated and the case is remanded.
It is so ordered.
I join only Parts I and II of the opinion written by THE CHIEF JUSTICE.
In August 1983, appellees Stephen J. Roy and Karen Miller sued to prevent the Government from requiring them to provide a social security number for their 2-year-old daughter, Little Bird of the Snow, as a condition for obtaining food stamps and welfare benefits for the child. They object to the social security number requirement because of their sincere religious conviction that the Government's widespread use of a unique numerical identifier for their daughter will deprive her of spiritual power. After it developed at trial that the Government already had a social security
I agree with the Court that the District Court erred in enjoining the Government's internal use of Little Bird of the Snow's social security number. It is easy to understand the rationale for that part of the District Court's injunction: appellees argue plausibly that the Government's threat to put the social security number into active use if they apply for benefits for their daughter requires them to choose between the child's physical sustenance and the dictates of their faith, the same dilemma created by the Government's initial requirement that appellees themselves supply a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow. Cf. Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 404 (1963). They claim that, absent some compelling state interest, the Government should refrain from acting in ways that appellees believe on religious grounds will harm their daughter's spiritual development.
Although this argument has some facial appeal, I conclude, for the reasons stated in Part II of the Court's opinion, that it stretches the Free Exercise Clause too far. Consequently, I agree that the portion of the District Court's judgment that enjoins the Government from using or disseminating the social security number already assigned to Little Bird of the Snow must be vacated. I would also vacate the remainder of the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings, because once the injunction against use or dissemination is set aside, it is unclear on the record presently before us whether a justiciable controversy remains with respect to the rest of the relief ordered by the District Court. Roy and Miller evidently objected to the social security number requirement primarily because they did not want the Government
In my view, the record is ambiguous on this score. In rejecting the Government's argument that the existence of the number rendered the case moot, the District Court found that Roy "feels compelled by his religious belief to avoid any use of that number and, to that end, has refused to provide the number to the Defendants in order to receive welfare benefits for Little Bird of the Snow." Roy v. Cohen, 590 F.Supp. 600, 608 (MD Pa. 1984). It is unclear whether the "use" to which the District Court referred included use by Roy and Miller, or just the more extensive use of the number by the Government. And even if the court meant to refer only to use by the Government, it is not clear that appellees do not also have an independent religious objection to the requirement that they provide a social security number for their daughter.
On the other hand, even if appellees do have such an objection, vacating the District Court's injunction against governmental use or dissemination of the number may moot this case in other ways. Regardless of whether Roy and Miller are required to provide their daughter's social security number on applications for benefits, they may simply be unwilling to apply for benefits without an assurance that the application will not trigger the use of the number. Conversely, it is possible that the Government, in a welcome display of reasonableness,
Since the proceedings on remand might well render unnecessary any discussion of whether appellees constitutionally may be required to provide a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow in order to obtain Government assistance on her behalf, that question could be said not to be properly before us. I nonetheless address it, partly because the rest of the Court has seen fit to do so, and partly because I think it is not the kind of difficult constitutional question that we should refrain from deciding except when absolutely necessary. Indeed, for the reasons expressed by JUSTICE O'CONNOR, see post, at 726-732, I think the question requires nothing more than a straightforward application of
JUSTICE STEVENS, concurring in part and concurring in the result.
Members of the Abenaki Indian Tribe are unquestionably entitled to the same constitutional protection against governmental action "prohibiting the free exercise" of their religion as are the adherents of other faiths.
As the Court holds in Part II of its opinion, which I join, the first claim must fail because the Free Exercise Clause
In order to understand the precise nature and current posture of appellees' claims, it is necessary to emphasize an extremely unusual feature of this case. At the outset of the litigation, the parties assumed — indeed, they stipulated to — a critical fact that was discovered to be inaccurate on the last day of the trial. Although the parties believed that Little Bird of the Snow did not have a Social Security number, the District Court found, and the parties now agree, that she has had a Social Security number since birth. The contrary belief had been central to the parties' perception of the litigation, and to the requested relief. It is thus also central to the state of the record as we find it.
At the state agency administrative hearing on the threatened withdrawal of certain benefits, the issue had been framed as whether to affirm a decision "determining the appellant's daughter, Little Bird of the Snow, ineligible for public assistance and Medical Assistance because the appellant would not apply for a Social Security Number for her."
This discovery had a dramatic impact on the litigation, and on the judgment under review. Because there was no longer any apparent basis for the dispute, the Government
Concluding that the discovery did not moot the case,
As the case comes to us, the first question to be decided is whether the District Court erred in effectively canceling the number that had already been issued for Little Bird of the Snow and that established the appellees' eligibility for the benefits in dispute. The Court correctly holds that the District
Once we vacate the injunction preventing the Government from making routine use of the number that has already been assigned to Little Bird of the Snow, there is nothing disclosed by the record to prevent the appellees from receiving the payments that are in dispute. Indeed, since the Government itself suggested to the District Court that the case had become moot as soon as it was learned that a Social Security number already existed, it is obvious that the Government perceives no difficulty in making the requested payments in the future. The only issue that prevented the case from becoming moot was the claim asserted by Roy that he was entitled to an injunction that effectively canceled the existing number. Since that issue has now been resolved, nothing remains of the case.
Neither Roy nor the Government has pointed to anything in the record suggesting that Roy will be under any further obligation to "provide" a Social Security number for Little Bird of the Snow. Even if one makes the unsupported assumption that Roy may object to filing certain forms in the future, there is a conspicuous lack of evidence and findings concerning the extent to which such requirements might impose a burden either on Roy, or on any other person who finds difficulty in providing information on pertinent forms.
These considerations highlight the fact that, if this case is not moot, it surely is not ripe. The case, as litigated, simply bears no resemblance to the currently abstract question about what the Government may require if it seeks a Social Security number that it already has.
Consistent with our longstanding principles of constitutional adjudication, we should decide nothing more than is actually necessary to dispose of the precise dispute before the Court,
I join Parts I and II of THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S opinion and I would vacate only a portion of the injunction issued by the District Court.
I believe that appellees cannot pursue their free exercise claim based solely on the actions of the Government with respect to the use of a Social Security number already in its possession, or with respect to any other identification number the Government may wish to assign and use in connection with its administration of its welfare assistance program. Accordingly, I join Parts I and II of THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S opinion, and I would vacate that portion of the District Court's judgment that enjoins the Government from using or disseminating the Social Security number already assigned to Little Bird of the Snow.
In all, eight Members of the Court believe that the District Court's injunction was overbroad in preventing the Government from using information already in its possession. See ante, at 699-701 (opinion of BURGER, C. J., joined by POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ.); ante, at 716-717 (STEVENS, J., concurring in part and concurring in the result); ante, at 713 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring in part); supra this page.
A logical next step on the facts of this case is to consider whether the case is moot. Only two Members of the Court
The District Court enjoined the Government not only from disseminating or using the Social Security number already in its possession, but "from denying Plaintiff Roy cash assistance and medical assistance benefits for Little Bird of the Snow for the Plaintiffs' failure to provide a social security number for her." App. to Juris. Statement 24a. Because of this portion of the District Court's injunction, we continue to have before us a live case or controversy. Mr. Roy sought in part an injunction that "restrai[ns the Government] from denying cash assistance and medical assistance to Little Bird of the Snow for failure to provide a Social Security Number." Record, Doc. No. 65, Proposed Orders Submitted by Plaintiff 1-2. The District Court granted that relief. App. to Juris. Statement 24a. The Government still refuses to concede that it should now provide welfare benefits to Little Bird of the Snow, even though it now claims to possess Little Bird of the Snow's Social Security number, and even though the Solicitor General has been "advised by the Social Security Administration that the agency itself assigns [Social Security numbers] to persons who are required by federal law to have one but decline to complete an application." Brief for Appellants 46, n. 19. Because the Government contests the District Court's decision that the Government may not deny welfare benefits to Little Bird of the Snow despite its acknowledgment of appellees' sincere religious objections, Mr. Roy may properly press his suit. Although the Government properly challenges part of the District Court's injunction as overbroad, it seeks to overturn the rest of the injunction only on the grounds that the District Court improperly applied the substantive standards of the First Amendment.
Given that a majority of the Court believes that the Government may use and disseminate information already in its possession, and given that the case is not moot, there is probably less remaining in this case than meets the eye. The interest asserted by the Government before the District Court could be wholly served after accommodating appellees' sincere religious beliefs, and the interests remaining after vacating the overbroad portion of the injunction are certainly no more difficult to pursue.
The Government has identified its goal as preventing fraud and abuse in the welfare system, a goal that is both laudable and compelling. The District Court, however, soundly rejected the Government's assertion that provision of the Social Security number was necessary to prevent such fraud and abuse. Among the means for which the Social Security number is used to reduce such fraud is "cross-matching," in which various computerized lists are compared with the welfare rolls to detect unreported income, individuals claimed as part of more than one household, and other fraudulent practices. Roy v. Cohen, 590 F.Supp. 600, 606-607 (MD Pa. 1984). As now appears, the Government not only has the Social Security number it wants for Little Bird of the Snow, but it can also use it. But even under the erroneous assumption of the District Court that no such number was available for use, that court found as a fact that, while cross-matching is "more difficult" without Social Security numbers, "[t]he file on a particular benefit recipient can be identified and cross-matching performed, if the recipient's full name, date of birth, and parents' names are entered into the computerized systems." Id., at 607. The District Court's generalized evaluation of the asserted indispensability of the Social Security number similarly undermines the Government's claim here:
Faced with these facts, however, THE CHIEF JUSTICE not only believes appellees themselves must provide a Social Security number to the Government before receiving benefits, but he also finds it necessary to invoke a new standard to be applied to test the validity of Government regulations under the Free Exercise Clause. Ante, at 707-708. He would uphold any facially neutral and uniformly applicable governmental requirement if the Government shows its rule to be "a reasonable means of promoting a legitimate public interest." Ante, at 708. Such a test has no basis in precedent and relegates a serious First Amendment value to the barest level of minimal scrutiny that the Equal Protection Clause already provides. I would apply our long line of precedents to hold that the Government must accommodate a legitimate free exercise claim unless pursuing an especially important interest by narrowly tailored means.
This Court has stated:
Indeed, THE CHIEF JUSTICE appears to acknowledge at least that the law at issue here involves governmental compulsion. See ante, at 704 ("[W]e do not believe that no government compulsion is involved"). The Free Exercise Clause is therefore clearly implicated in this case. See Thomas v. Review Bd., supra, at 717-718; Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 403-406 (1963).
Granting an exemption to Little Bird of the Snow, and to the handful of others who can be expected to make a similar religious objection to providing the Social Security number in conjunction with the receipt of welfare benefits, will not demonstrably diminish the Government's ability to combat welfare fraud. The District Court found that the governmental appellants had hardly shown that a significant number of other individuals were likely to make a claim similar to that at issue here:
Cf. United States v. Lee, supra (refusing request for exemption from mandatory taxation); Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437 (1971) (refusing request for exemption from involuntary military service). The danger that a religious exemption would invite or encourage fraudulent applications seeking
Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983), does not support THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S analysis. The Court stated in that case:
See also id., at 603 (" `The state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest' ") (emphasis added) (quoting United States v. Lee, supra, at 257-258). It is clear that the Court in Bob Jones University did not adopt anything like the legitimate interest/rational means test propounded by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, but rather continued to require the Government to show pursuit of an especially important interest by narrowly tailored means. In addition,
Hamilton v. Regents of University of California, 293 U.S. 245 (1934), also fails to support THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S construction of a new test. When the Court decided Hamilton, it had not yet applied, and did not in Hamilton apply, the Free Exercise Clause to actions of the States. Cf. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940). The Court's discussion in Hamilton of the state university's decision to require military training is therefore limited to a generalized analysis under the Fourteenth Amendment of whether the State's policy deprived the would-be students of "life, liberty, or property." See 293 U. S., at 261-262. The Court concluded that no such deprivation was involved when the State "ha[d] not drafted or called [the individuals] to [war]." Id., at 262.
This Court's opinions have never turned on so slender a reed as whether the challenged requirement is merely a "reasonable means of promoting a legitimate public interest." Ante, at 708 (opinion of BURGER, C. J.). THE CHIEF JUSTICE appears to believe that the added inconvenience to the State of administering a selective exemption overbalances any burden on individual religious exercise. But this Court
Appellants have rested their case on vague allegations of administrative inconvenience and harm to the public fisc that are wholly unsubstantiated by the record and the findings of the District Court. The Court simply cannot, consistent with its precedents, distinguish this case from the wide variety of factual situations in which the Free Exercise Clause indisputably imposes significant constraints upon government. Indeed, five Members of the Court agree that Sherbert and Thomas, in which the government was required to accommodate sincere religious beliefs, control the outcome of this case to the extent it is not moot. See ante, at 716 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring in part); post, at 733 (WHITE, J., dissenting); supra, at 728-730.
THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S distinction between this case and the Court's previous decisions on free exercise claims — that here "it is appellees who seek benefits from the Government and who assert that . . . they should be excused from compliance with a condition that is binding on all other persons who seek the same benefits from the Government," ante, at 703 — has been directly rejected. The fact that the underlying dispute involves an award of benefits rather than an exaction of penalties does not grant the Government license to apply a different version of the Constitution:
See also Sherbert v. Verner, supra, at 404 ("It is too late in the day to doubt that the liberties of religion and expression may be infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege"). The fact that appellees seek exemption from a precondition that the Government attaches to an award of benefits does not, therefore, generate a meaningful distinction between this case and one where appellees seek an exemption from the Government's imposition of penalties upon them. Even if the Founding Fathers did not live in a society with the "broad range of benefits" and "complex programs" that the Federal Government administers today, ante, at 707 (opinion of BURGER, C. J.), they constructed a society in which the Constitution placed express limits upon governmental actions limiting the freedoms of that society's members. The rise of the welfare state was not the fall of the Free Exercise Clause.
Our precedents have long required the Government to show that a compelling state interest is served by its refusal to grant a religious exemption. The Government here has clearly and easily met its burden of showing that the prevention of welfare fraud is a compelling governmental goal. If the Government could meet its compelling needs only by refusing to grant a religious exemption, and chose a narrowly tailored means to do so, then the Government would prevail. But the Government has failed to show that granting a religious exemption to those who legitimately object to providing a Social Security number will do any harm to its compelling interest in preventing welfare fraud.
I would merely vacate that portion of the injunction issued by the District Court that enjoins the Government from
JUSTICE WHITE, dissenting.
Being of the view that Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), control this case, I cannot join the Court's opinion and judgment.
"A. Yes. Because we felt that this number would be used to rob her of her ability to have greater power in that this number is a unique number. It serves unique purposes. It's applied to her and only her; and being applied to her, that's what offends us, and we try to keep her person unique, and we try to keep her spirit unique, and we're scared that if we were to use this number, she would lose control of that and she would have no ability to protect herself from any evil that that number might be used against her." App. 85.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN similarly believes that on remand "it is possible that the Government, in a welcome display of reasonableness, will decide that since it already has a Social Security number for Little Bird of the Snow, it will not insist that appellees resupply it." Post, at 714-715. My reading of the record is that such an occurrence is not a mere "possibility." JUSTICE STEVENS cites federal regulations that provide that the Government will assist households that, for some reason or other, are unable to furnish a Social Security number. See post, at 721-722. Moreover, the Government's brief in this Court reports that "we are advised by the Social Security Administration that the agency itself assigns [Social Security numbers] to persons who are required by federal law to have one but decline to complete an application. If, for religious reasons, the individual requiring [a Social Security number] does not wish to receive a social security card, the agency will accommodate that request. Similarly, when an applicant refuses to sign an application for [a Social Security number] on religious grounds, [Social Security Administration personnel] may sign in lieu of the applicant." Brief for Appellants 46, n. 19 (emphasis added; citations omitted). Thus, the Government undoubtedly would be happy to "supply" the number for appellees — i. e., fill the number in on their applications — if this is what they wanted. But appellees do not desire any such assistance from the Government; instead they filed suit seeking a ruling excluding them from the operation of any portion of the statutory scheme involving Social Security numbers. They continue to press this claim in this Court. For the reasons advanced here this claim ultimately lacks merit, but it certainly is not moot.
Also, in view of our analysis of the case, because all relevant facts are before the Court and further proceedings in the District Court could not produce information that would change the result, the case is ripe for decision.
This misunderstanding of the Government's interest probably accounts for the District Court's conclusion that the Government's interest in preventing fraud "can be satisfied without requiring a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow." 590 F. Supp., at 607. In any event, this conclusionary statement is certainly at odds with the District Court's more specific statement quoted in text regarding the prospects for "one or perhaps a few individuals . . . fraudulently obtain[ing] welfare benefits." Indeed, the partial dissent appears to concede that its position might result in one or perhaps a few individuals fraudulently receiving benefits.
Given THE CHIEF JUSTICE'S contrary view that the Government "undoubtedly" will not insist that appellees themselves provide a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow, see ante, at 702, n. 7, I am at a loss to understand why THE CHIEF JUSTICE believes there is still a live controversy.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."
"A. Yes. Because we felt that this number would be used to rob her of her ability to have greater power in that this number is a unique number. It serves unique purposes. It's applied to her and only her; and being applied to her, that's what offends us, and we try to keep her person unique, and we try to keep her spirit unique, and we're scared that if we were to use this number, she would lose control of that and she would have no ability to protect herself from any evil that that number might be used against her." Id., at 85.
Indeed, the regulations suggest that there may be a limited exception to the Social Security number requirement itself. See 7 CFR § 273.6 (b)(2) (1985) ("For those individuals required to provide an SSN who do not have one, the State agency shall act as follows. . . . If an individual applies through the State agency, the State agency shall complete the application for an SSN, Form SS-5"); 50 Fed. Reg. 10469 (1985) (proposed 7 CFR § 273.6(d)) ("In determining if good cause exists for failure to comply with the requirement to apply for or provide the State agency with an SSN, the State agency shall consider information from the household member, the Social Security Administration and the State agency . . . . Good cause does not include delays due to illness, lack of transportation or temporary absences, because SSA makes provisions for mail-in applications in lieu of applying in person. . . . If the household member(s) applying for an SSN has been unable to obtain the documents required by SSA, the State agency caseworker should make every effort to assist the individual(s) in obtaining these documents").