History and GovernmentSupreme CourtCases

Flast v. Cohen (1968)

Case Summary

A federal court ruled that Flast and the other plaintiffs did not have standing as taxpayers to challenge the use of federal funds for religious schools. “Standing” is a legal requirement under which a person can only file suit if he or she has a personal stake in the outcome of the case. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court held that the taxpayers who brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of federal taxing and spending programs do have the necessary legal standing to obtain federal court review. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the majority, citing the earlier case of Frothingham v. Mellon, 1923. In that case, Warren wrote, “this Court ruled that a federal taxpayer is without standing to challenge the constitutionality of a federal statute.… In this case, we must decide whether the Frothingham barrier should be lowered when a taxpayer attacks a federal statute on the ground that it violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.” Chief Justice Warren noted that, in contrast to Frothingham, the current case of Flast was about a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits any government action leading to the “establishment of religion.” The Court concluded that the plaintiffs were appropriate plaintiffs because they had sufficient personal interest in preventing the use of their tax money for this purpose.

Justice John Harlan dissented. He argued that a taxpayer may refuse to pay a tax or may sue for return of a tax wrongfully collected, but may not sue to “challenge the constitutionality of the uses for which Congress has authorized the expenditure of public funds.”

More on the Case

The Supreme Court revisited the issues in Flast in 1982, when the Court decided Valley Forge College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Congress had authorized the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to dispose of federal “surplus property.” HEW transferred a former military hospital to a church-related college.

Americans United and several individuals brought suit in federal court, claiming that the transfer violated the Establishment Clause and made unconstitutional use of their tax dollars. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that these plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. Justice William Rehnquist noted that the plaintiffs objected to a decision by HEW and not an action by Congress, and that they alleged no concrete personal injury.

In his dissent, Justice William Brennan wrote that “It may be that Congress can tax for almost any reason, or for no reason at all. There is, so far as I have been able to discern, but one constitutionally imposed limit on that authority. Congress cannot use tax money to support a church, or to encourage religion.” Justice Brennan argued that there is no practical way for a taxpayer to challenge an unconstitutional expenditure when the tax is collected. “Surely, then, a taxpayer must have standing at the time that he learns of the Government's alleged Establishment Clause violation to seek equitable relief in order to halt the continuing and intolerable burden on his pocketbook, his conscience, and his constitutional rights.”

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Vote Now for the Children's & Teen Choice Book Awards
Voting is open now through May 3 for the Children's and Teen Choice Book Awards — the only national book awards program where the winning author, illustrator, and books of the year are selected by young readers. Encourage your child to vote for his favorites today!

Find Today's Newest & Best Children's Books!
Looking for newly released books for your child? Try our new Book Finder tool to search for new books by age, type, and theme, and create reading lists for kids!

8 Products to Help Your Family Go Plastic-Free
How can you minimize your family's exposure to harmful chemicals and lessen your impact on the environment? Try swapping out some of your everyday plastic products with these non-plastic alternatives.

Registered for Kindergarten — Now What?
Wondering what to do now that you've signed your child up for kindergarten? Try our award-winning Kindergarten Readiness app! This easy-to-use checklist comes with games and activities to help your child build essential skills for kindergarten. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Facebook icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks