In Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 454 U.S. 464 (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that Americans United did not have standing to challenge the government’s transfer of property to a religious educational institution. The case illustrates a limitation on suits brought with the purpose of preventing expenditures that might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Citizens challenged transfer of government property to Christian college

The secretary of health, education, and welfare had conveyed surplus government property—the site of a former military hospital appraised at more than $500,000—to the Valley Forge Christian College with the understanding that it would be devoted for at least thirty years to educational purposes. The transfer was made at no charge to the school as the government deemed that the public benefit offset the cost of the facility. Members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged the transfer as an infringement of the Establishment Clause; the group claimed standing as taxpayers injured by the misappropriation of their tax dollars.

Court denied the citizens had sustained injury

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist denied that Americans United had proper standing and focused on the need for parties to a suit to show that they had sustained concrete injury. He relied chiefly on the decision in Flast v. Cohen (1968), where the Court had established a two-prong test for taxpayers to establish standing in such cases. American United did not meet the first prong because its members were not, as Flast required, challenging a congressional expenditure but rather a decision by a cabinet department to transfer a parcel of property. Similarly, the transfer did not involve “an exercise of authority conferred by the Taxing and Spending Clause.”

Rehnquist denied that Americans United had established any other type of standing either. The only real injury its members cited was “the psychological consequence presumably produced by observation of conduct with which one disagrees.” They found out about the transfer through a newspaper story and did not even live in the state where the transfer took place. To accept jurisdiction in this case, Rehnquist reasoned, would open the Court to many other cases where parties had little stake in the outcome.

Dissenters thought Court should have considered Establishment Clause concerns

In dissent Justice William J. Brennan Jr., joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun, argued that Rehnquist had elevated the case and controversy requirement over other constitutional objectives. Brennan believed that “one of the primary purposes of the Establishment Clause was to prevent the use of tax moneys for religious purposes,” and that the Court should not allow narrow understandings of standing to interfere with this purpose. He thought that the differences between this decision and Flast were insignificant. Justice John Paul Stevens also authored a dissent, in which he argued that the majority decision did not sufficiently recognize the importance of the Establishment Clause within the Constitution.

The Court relied on Valley Forge as a key precedent in limiting taxpayer standing in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation (2007).

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