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 offering adolescent pregnancy prevention and care services — does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

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.

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.

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.

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