Supreme Court Cases

Bob Jones University v. United States, 1983

Historical Background

State and federal laws sometimes come into conflict with religious practices, as Reynolds v. United States, 1879, the so-called "Mormon polygamy" case, clearly showed. When religious beliefs and practices protected by the 1st Amendment conflict with the law, which side should take precedence? In what situations does government have the authority to declare that religious institutions are not tax-exempt?

The composition of the Court that would consider these and other questions in Bob Jones University v. United States had not changed since the Island Trees decision. Chief Justice Burger presided, with Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (1956) the senior member and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (1981) the newest member.

Circumstances of the Case

This case concerned Bob Jones University, a Christian school located in Greenville, South Carolina. About half of the school's 5,000 students, from kindergarten through college and graduate school, were studying for the ministry or some other Christian service. As a private, religious school, Bob Jones University accepted no federal, State, or local funding. Nor, as a tax-exempt, charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code, did it pay any taxes. The school's administration believed that the Bible prohibited dancing, movies, jazz, and rock music, as well as interracial dating and marriage. These beliefs were enforced through a code of student conduct. No African Americans were admitted to Bob Jones University before 1971. Between 1971 and 1975, only married African American couples could be admitted. After 1975, African Americans could be admitted regardless of marital status, but the policy banning interracial dating and marriage was strictly enforced.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) became part of a concerted effort to combat racial discrimination in schools throughout the country. The IRS determined that the Federal Government had established a "public policy" that prohibited the granting of any public subsidy to public or private educational institutions that practiced discrimination. In the 1970s, the IRS ruled that a private school could no longer be ruled a "charitable" organization unless its admissions and educational policies were nondiscriminatory. The tax-exempt status of discriminatory institutions would be revoked. Decisions by federal courts and federal courts of appeals upheld the IRS's policy.

Under this new interpretation of federal "public policy," the IRS revoked Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status. To recover its lost status, the university paid a $21 unemployment tax to the Federal Government and then sued, as a tax-exempt institution, to recover the money. The IRS responded with a bill for $490,000 in back taxes, which the agency said were owed from 1971 to 1975 when the university was not tax-exempt.

Constitutional Issues

The issue involved a clash between the 1st and 14th amendments. Does the 1st Amendment's Establishment Clause protect all church practices, making Bob Jones University tax-exempt even if its rules conflict with "public policy"? Should the 1st Amendment's Free Exercise Clause take precedence over the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause? Does the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process prevent the IRS from depriving the university of property without a full hearing in a court of law?


For Bob Jones University: The Establishment Clause prevents the state from favoring one church over another. By taking away the university's tax-exempt status, the Federal Government is favoring other churches over the Christian fundamentalism of the university. Moreover, the 1st Amendment's free exercise guarantee, a fundamental protection under U.S. law, should not be taken away under any circumstances.

By determining public policy, the IRS has illegally assumed the power of Congress. Furthermore, by its unilateral action the IRS has deprived citizens of property without being bound by the rules of a courtroom—a violation of the due process provisions of the 14th Amendment.

For the United States: By taking away the university's tax-exempt status, the government is endorsing a standard for admissions and education policies required to obtain tax-exempt status. The 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection should take precedence over 1st Amendment rights in this case. Lower courts have repeatedly upheld the IRS's new interpretation of the tax code which requires that all tax-exempt organizations be "charitable," among other things. An organization cannot be considered "charitable" if it violates "public policy" by practicing racial discrimination. Moreover, the courts have repeatedly backed the IRS's power to make decisions and enforce tax codes without being bound by the rules of a formal court of law.

Decision and Rationale

The Court voted 8–1 to uphold the revocation of the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University. Chief Justice Warren Burger, in his majority opinion, reaffirmed the Court's belief in interpretation. "It is a well-established canon of statutory construction that a court should go beyond the literal language of a statute if reliance on that language would defeat the plain purpose of the statute." In reviewing the IRS tax code, Burger found that the "intent" was for tax-exempt organizations to meet certain "common-law standards of charity—namely that an institution seeking tax-exempt status must serve a public purpose and not be contrary to public policy," emphasizing that U.S. public policy was one of nondiscrimination.

Burger next reviewed the long history during which Congress gave the IRS power to make decisions without a court proceeding. He concluded that in this case, the demands of the 14th Amendment superseded those of the 1st Amendment. Burger found the "governmental interest at stake" in the case—namely, "eradicating racial discrimination in education"—to be "compelling." He concluded that a compelling "governmental interest substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on petitioners' exercise of their religious beliefs."

Questions for Discussion

  1. Should the motivation for discrimination make any difference before the Court? The Court found that Bob Jones University was truly a "religious" school, and that its polices were motivated by a sincere interpretation of the Bible. In light of that fact, what is your opinion of the Court's decision?
  2. Members of the Court sometimes favor one side of a particular issue because the alternative would be worse. Had the Court decided for Bob Jones University in this case, what alternative precedent would it have set? What would have been the consequences of that precedent? Given your conclusions regarding the alternative, what is your view of the Bob Jones decision?