Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc.


No. 80-327 Argued: November 4, 1981 --- Decided: January 12, 1982
JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.


Article IV, § 3, cl. 2, of the Constitution vests Congress with the "Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the . . . Property belonging to the United States." Shortly after the termination of hostilities in the Second World War, Congress enacted the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, 63 Stat. 377, as amended, 40 U.S.C. § 471 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. III). The Act was designed, in part, to provide "an economical and efficient system for . . . the disposal of surplus property." 63 Stat. 378, 40 U.S.C. § 471. In furtherance of this policy, federal agencies are directed to maintain adequate inventories of the property under their control and to identify excess property for transfer to other agencies able to use it. See 63 Stat. 384, 40 U.S.C. §§ 483(b), (c). [n1] Property that has outlived its usefulness to the Federal Government is declared "surplus," [n2] and may be transferred to private [p467] or other public entities. See generally 63 Stat. 385, as amended, 40 U.S.C. § 484.

The Act authorizes the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Secretary of Education [n3]) to assume responsibility for disposing of surplus real property "for school, classroom, or other educational use." 63 Stat. 387, as amended, 40 U.S.C. § 484(k)(1). Subject to the disapproval of the Administrator of General Services, the Secretary may sell or lease the property to nonprofit, tax-exempt educational institutions for consideration that takes into account "any benefit which has accrued or may accrue to the United States" from the transferee's use of the property. 63 Stat. 387, 40 U.S.C. §§ 484(k)(1)(A), (C). [n4] By regulation, the Secretary has provided for the computation of a "public benefit allowance," which discounts the transfer price of the property "on the basis of benefits to the United States from the use of such property for educational purposes." 34 CFR § 12.9(a) (1980). [n5]

The property which spawned this litigation was acquired by the Department of the Army in 1942, as part of a larger tract of approximately 181 acres of land northwest of Philadelphia. The Army built on that land the Valley Forge General Hospital, and for 30 years thereafter, that hospital provided medical care for members of the Armed Forces. In April, 1973, as part of a plan to reduce the number of military [p468] installations in the United States, the Secretary of Defense proposed to close the hospital, and the General Services Administration declared it to be "surplus property."

The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) eventually assumed responsibility for disposing of portions of the property, and in August, 1976, it conveyed a 77-acre tract to petitioner, the Valley Forge Christian College. [n6] The appraised value of the property at the time of conveyance was $577,500. [n7] This appraised value was discounted, however, by the Secretary's computation of a 100% public benefit allowance, which permitted petitioner to acquire the property without making any financial payment for it. The deed from HEW conveyed the land in fee simple with certain conditions subsequent, which required petitioner to use the property for 30 years solely for the educational purposes described in petitioner's application. In that description, petitioner stated its intention to conduct

a program of education . . . meeting the accrediting standards of the State of Pennsylvania, The American Association of Bible Colleges, the Division of Education of the General Council of the Assemblies of God and the Veterans Administration.

Petitioner is a nonprofit educational institution operating under the supervision of a religious order known as the Assemblies of God. By its own description, petitioner's purpose is "to offer systematic training on the collegiate level to men and women for Christian service as either ministers or laymen." App. 34. Its degree programs reflect this orientation by providing courses of study "to train leaders for church related ministries." Id. at 102. Faculty members [p469] must "have been baptized in the Holy Spirit and be living consistent Christian lives," id. at 37, and all members of the college administration must be affiliated with the Assemblies of God, id. at 36. In its application for the 77-acre tract, petitioner represented that, if it obtained the property, it would make "additions to its offerings in the arts and humanities," and would strengthen its "psychology" and "counseling" courses to provide services in inner-city areas.

In September, 1976, respondents Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc. (Americans United), and four of its employees, learned of the conveyance through a news release. Two months later, they brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, later transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, to challenge the conveyance on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. [n8] See id. at 10. In its amended complaint, Americans United described itself as a nonprofit organization composed of 90,000 "taxpayer members." The complaint asserted that each member

would be deprived of the fair and constitutional use of his (her) tax dollar for constitutional purposes in violation of his (her) rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Ibid. Respondents sought a declaration that the conveyance was null and void, and an order compelling petitioner to transfer the property back to the United States. Id. at 12.

On petitioner's motion, the District Court granted summary judgment and dismissed the complaint. App. to Pet. for Cert. A42. The court found that respondents lacked standing to sue as taxpayers under Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968), and had "failed to allege that they have suffered any actual or concrete injury beyond a generalized grievance common to all taxpayers." App. to Pet. for Cert. A43. [p470]

Respondents appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which reversed the judgment of the District Court by a divided vote. Americans United v. U.S. Dept. of HEW, 619 F.2d 252 (1980). All members of the court agreed that respondents lacked standing as taxpayers to challenge the conveyance under Flast v. Cohen, supra, since that case extended standing to taxpayers qua taxpayers only to challenge congressional exercises of the power to tax and spend conferred by Art. I, § 8, of the Constitution, and this conveyance was authorized by legislation enacted under the authority of the Property Clause, Art. IV, § 3, cl. 2. Notwithstanding this significant factual difference from Flast, the majority of the Court of Appeals found that respondents had standing merely as "citizens," claiming "‘injury in fact' to their shared individuated right to a government that ‘shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.'" 619 F.2d at 261. In the majority's view, this "citizen standing" was sufficient to satisfy the "case or controversy" requirement of Art. III. One judge, perhaps sensing the doctrinal difficulties with the majority's extension of standing, wrote separately, expressing his view that standing was necessary to satisfy "the need for an available plaintiff," without whom "the Establishment Clause would be rendered virtually unenforceable" by the judiciary. Id. at 267, 268. The dissenting judge expressed the view that respondents' allegations constituted a "generalized grievance . . . too abstract to satisfy the injury in fact component of standing." Id. at 269. He therefore concluded that their standing to contest the transfer was barred by this Court's decisions in Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208 (1974), and United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166 (1974). 619 F.2d at 270-271.

Because of the unusually broad and novel view of standing to litigate a substantive question in the federal courts adopted by the Court of Appeals, we granted certiorari, 450 U.S. 909 (1981), and we now reverse. [p471]


Article III of the Constitution limits the "judicial power" of the United States to the resolution of "cases" and "controversies." The constitutional power of federal courts cannot be defined, and indeed has no substance, without reference to the necessity "to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies." Liverpool S.S. Co. v. Commissioners of Emigration, 113 U.S. 33, 39 (1885). The requirements of Art. III are not satisfied merely because a party requests a court of the United States to declare its legal rights, and has couched that request for forms of relief historically associated with courts of law in terms that have a familiar ring to those trained in the legal process. The judicial power of the United States defined by Art. III is not an unconditioned authority to determine the constitutionality of legislative or executive acts. The power to declare the rights of individuals and to measure the authority of governments, this Court said 90 years ago, "is legitimate only in the last resort, and as a necessity in the determination of real, earnest and vital controversy." Chicago & Grand Trunk R. Co. v. Wellman, 143 U.S. 339, 345 (1892). Otherwise, the power "is not judicial . . . in the sense in which judicial power is granted by the Constitution to the courts of the United States." United States v. Ferreira, 13 How. 40, 48 (1852).

As an incident to the elaboration of this bedrock requirement, this Court has always required that a litigant have "standing" to challenge the action sought to be adjudicated in the lawsuit. The term "standing" subsumes a blend of constitutional requirements and prudential considerations, see Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975), and it has not always been clear in the opinions of this Court whether particular features of the "standing" requirement have been required by Art. III ex proprio vigore, or whether they are requirements that the Court itself has erected and which were not compelled by the language of the Constitution. See Flast v. Cohen, supra, at 97. [p472]

A recent line of decisions, however, has resolved that ambiguity, at least to the following extent: at an irreducible minimum, Art. III requires the party who invokes the court's authority to "show that he personally has suffered some actual or threatened injury as a result of the putatively illegal conduct of the defendant," Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91, 99 (1979), and that the injury "fairly can be traced to the challenged action" and "is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision," Simon v. Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org., 426 U.S. 26, 38, 41 (1976). [n9] In this manner does Art. III limit the federal judicial power

to those disputes which confine federal courts to a role consistent with a system of separated powers and which are traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process.

Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. at 97.

The requirement of "actual injury redressable by the court," Simon, supra, at 39, serves several of the "implicit policies embodied in Article III," Flast, supra, at 96. It tends to assure that the legal questions presented to the court will be resolved not in the rarified atmosphere of a debating society, but in a concrete factual context conducive to a realistic appreciation of the consequences of judicial action. The "standing" requirement serves other purposes. Because it assures an actual factual setting in which the litigant asserts a claim of injury in fact, a court may decide the case with some confidence that its decision will not pave the way for lawsuits which have some, but not all, of the facts of the case actually decided by the court. [p473]

The Art. III aspect of standing also reflects a due regard for the autonomy of those persons likely to be most directly affected by a judicial order. The federal courts have abjured appeals to their authority which would convert the judicial process into "no more than a vehicle for the vindication of the value interests of concerned bystanders." United States v. SCRAP, 412 U.S. 669, 687 (1973). Were the federal courts merely publicly funded forums for the ventilation of public grievances or the refinement of jurisprudential understanding, the concept of "standing" would be quite unnecessary. But the "cases and controversies" language of Art. III forecloses the conversion of courts of the United States into judicial versions of college debating forums. As we said in Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 740 (1972):

The requirement that a party seeking review must allege facts showing that he is himself adversely affected . . . does serve as at least a rough attempt to put the decision as to whether review will be sought in the hands of those who have a direct stake in the outcome.

The exercise of judicial power, which can so profoundly affect the lives, liberty, and property of those to whom it extends, is therefore restricted to litigants who can show "injury in fact" resulting from the action which they seek to have the court adjudicate.

The exercise of the judicial power also affects relationships between the coequal arms of the National Government. The effect is, of course, most vivid when a federal court declares unconstitutional an act of the Legislative or Executive Branch. While the exercise of that "ultimate and supreme function," Chicago & Grand Trunk R. Co. v. Wellman, supra, at 345, is a formidable means of vindicating individual rights, when employed unwisely or unnecessarily, it is also the ultimate threat to the continued effectiveness of the federal courts in performing that role. While the propriety of such action by a federal court has been recognized since [p474] Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803), it has been recognized as a tool of last resort on the part of the federal judiciary throughout its nearly 200 years of existence:

[R]epeated and essentially head-on confrontations between the life-tenured branch and the representative branches of government will not, in the long run, be beneficial to either. The public confidence essential to the former and the vitality critical to the latter may well erode if we do not exercise self-restraint in the utilization of our power to negative the actions of the other branches.

United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. at 188 (POWELL, J., concurring). Proper regard for the complex nature of our constitutional structure requires neither that the Judicial Branch shrink from a confrontation with the other two coequal branches of the Federal Government nor that it hospitably accept for adjudication claims of constitutional violation by other branches of government where the claimant has not suffered cognizable injury. Thus, this Court has

refrain[ed] from passing upon the constitutionality of an act [of the representative branches] unless obliged to do so in the proper performance of our judicial function, when the question is raised by a party whose interests entitle him to raise it.

Blair v. United States, 250 U.S. 273, 279 (1919). The importance of this precondition should not be underestimated as a means of "defin[ing] the role assigned to the judiciary in a tripartite allocation of power." Flast v. Cohen, supra, at 95.

Beyond the constitutional requirements, the federal judiciary has also adhered to a set of prudential principles that bear on the question of standing. Thus, this Court has held that

the plaintiff generally must assert his own legal rights and interests, and cannot rest his claim to relief on the legal rights or interests of third parties.

Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. at 499. [n10] In addition, even when the plaintiff has alleged [p475] redressable injury sufficient to meet the requirements of Art. III, the Court has refrained from adjudicating "abstract questions of wide public significance" which amount to "generalized grievances," pervasively shared and most appropriately addressed in the representative branches. Id. at 499-500. [n11] Finally, the Court has required that the plaintiff's complaint fall within "the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute or constitutional guarantee in question." Association of Data Processing Service Orgs. v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 153 (1970). [n12]

Merely to articulate these principles is to demonstrate their close relationship to the policies reflected in the Art. III requirement of actual or threatened injury amenable to judicial remedy. But neither the counsels of prudence nor the policies implicit in the "case or controversy" requirement should be mistaken for the rigorous Art. III requirements themselves. Satisfaction of the former cannot substitute for a demonstration of "‘distinct and palpable injury' . . . that is likely to be redressed if the requested relief is granted." Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. at 100 (quoting Warth v. Seldin, supra, at 501). That requirement states a limitation on judicial power, not merely a factor to be balanced in the weighing of so-called "prudential" considerations.

We need not mince words when we say that the concept of "Art. III standing" has not been defined with complete consistency in all of the various cases decided by this Court which have discussed it, nor when we say that this very fact is probably proof that the concept cannot be reduced to a one-sentence or one-paragraph definition. But of one thing we may be sure: those who do not possess Art. III standing may [p476] not litigate as suitors in the courts of the United States. [n13] Article III, which is every bit as important in its circumscription of the judicial power of the United States as in its granting of that power, is not merely a troublesome hurdle to be overcome, if possible, so as to reach the "merits" of a lawsuit which a party desires to have adjudicated; it is a part of the basic charter promulgated by the Framers of the Constitution at Philadelphia in 1787, a charter which created a general government, provided for the interaction between that government and the governments of the several States, and was later amended so as to either enhance or limit its authority with respect to both States and individuals.


The injury alleged by respondents in their amended complaint is the "depriv[ation] of the fair and constitutional use of [their] tax dollar." App 10. [n14] As a result, our discussion [p477] must begin with Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447 (1923) (decided with Massachusetts v. Mellon). In that action, a taxpayer brought suit challenging the constitutionality of the Maternity Act of 1921, which provided federal funding to the States for the purpose of improving maternal and infant health. The injury she alleged consisted of the burden of taxation in support of an unconstitutional regime, which she characterized as a deprivation of property without due process. "Looking through forms of words to the substance of [the] complaint," the Court concluded that the only "injury" was the fact "that officials of the executive department of the government are executing and will execute an act of Congress asserted to be unconstitutional." Id. at 488. Any tangible effect of the challenged statute on the plaintiff's tax burden was "remote, fluctuating and uncertain." Id. at 487. In rejecting this as a cognizable injury sufficient to establish standing, the Court admonished:

The party who invokes the power [of judicial review] must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid, but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally. . . . Here, the parties plaintiff have no such case.

Id. at 488.

Following the decision in Frothingham, the Court confirmed that the expenditure of public funds in an allegedly unconstitutional manner is not an injury sufficient to confer standing, even though the plaintiff contributes to the public coffers as a taxpayer. In Doremus v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 429 (1952), plaintiffs brought suit as citizens and taxpayers, claiming that a New Jersey law which authorized public school teachers in the classroom to read passages from [p478] the Bible violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court dismissed the appeal for lack of standing:

This Court has held that the interests of a taxpayer in the moneys of the federal treasury are too indeterminable, remote, uncertain and indirect to furnish a basis for an appeal to the preventive powers of the Court over their manner of expenditure. . . . Without disparaging the availability of the remedy by taxpayer's action to restrain unconstitutional acts which result in direct pecuniary injury, we reiterate what the Court said of a federal statute as equally true when a state Act is assailed:

The party who invokes the power must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid, but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement, and not merely that he suffers in some indefinite way in common with people generally.

Id. at 433-434 (quoting Frothingham v. Mellon, supra, at 488) (citations omitted). In short, the Court found that plaintiffs' grievance was "not a direct dollars-and-cents injury, but is a religious difference." 342 U.S. at 434. A case or controversy did not exist, even though the "clash of interests [was] real and . . . strong." Id. at 436 (Douglas, J., dissenting).

The Court again visited the problem of taxpayer standing in Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83 (1968). The taxpayer plaintiffs in Flast sought to enjoin the expenditure of federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which they alleged were being used to support religious schools in violation of the Establishment Clause. The Court developed a two-part test to determine whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue. First, because a taxpayer alleges injury only by virtue of his liability for taxes, the Court held that

a taxpayer will be a proper party to allege the unconstitutionality only of exercises of congressional power under the taxing and spending clause of Art. I, § 8, of the Constitution. [p479]

Id. at 102. Second, the Court required the taxpayer to

show that the challenged enactment exceeds specific constitutional limitations upon the exercise of the taxing and spending power, and not simply that the enactment is generally beyond the powers delegated to Congress by Art. I, § 8.

Id. at 102-103.

The plaintiffs in Flast satisfied this test because "[t]heir constitutional challenge [was] made to an exercise by Congress of its power under Art. I, § 8, to spend for the general welfare," id. at 103, and because the Establishment Clause, on which plaintiffs' complaint rested, "operates as a specific constitutional limitation upon the exercise by Congress of the taxing and spending power conferred by Art. I, § 8," id. at 104. The Court distinguished Frothingham v. Mellon, supra, on the ground that Mrs. Frothingham had relied not on a specific limitation on the power to tax and spend, but on a more general claim based on the Due Process Clause. 392 U.S. at 105. Thus, the Court reaffirmed that the "case or controversy" aspect of standing is unsatisfied

where a taxpayer seeks to employ a federal court as a forum in which to air his generalized grievances about the conduct of government or the allocation of power in the Federal System.

Id. at 106.

Unlike the plaintiffs in Flast, respondents fail the first prong of the test for taxpayer standing. Their claim is deficient in two respects. First, the source of their complaint is not a congressional action, but a decision by HEW to transfer a parcel of federal property. [n15] Flast limited taxpayer standing to challenges directed "only [at] exercises of congressional power." Id. at 102. See Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. at 228 (denying standing because the taxpayer plaintiffs "did not challenge an enactment under Art. I, § 8, but rather the action of the Executive Branch"). [p480]

Second, and perhaps redundantly, the property transfer about which respondents complain was not an exercise of authority conferred by the Taxing and Spending Clause of Art. I, § 8. The authorizing legislation, the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, was an evident exercise of Congress' power under the Property Clause, Art. IV, § 3, cl. 2. [n16] Respondents do not dispute this conclusion, see Brief for Respondents Americans United et al. 10, and it is decisive of any claim of taxpayer standing under the Flast precedent. [n17] [p481]

Any doubt that once might have existed concerning the rigor with which the Flast exception to the Frothingham principle ought to be applied should have been erased by this Court's recent decisions in United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166 (1974), and Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, supra. In Richardson, the question was whether the plaintiff had standing as a federal taxpayer to argue that legislation which permitted the Central Intelligence Agency to withhold from the public detailed information about its expenditures violated the Accounts Clause of the Constitution. [n18] We rejected plaintiff's claim of standing because "his challenge [was] not addressed to the taxing or spending power, but to the statutes regulating the CIA." 418 U.S. at 175. The "mere recital" of those claims "demonstrate[d] how far he [fell] short of the standing criteria of Flast and how neatly he [fell] within the Frothingham holding left undisturbed." Id. at 174-175.

The claim in Schlesinger was marred by the same deficiency. Plaintiffs in that case argued that the Incompatibility Clause of Art. I [n19] prevented certain Members of Congress from holding commissions in the Armed Forces Reserve. We summarily rejected their assertion of standing as taxpayers because they

did not challenge an enactment under Art. I, § 8, but rather the action of the Executive Branch in permitting Members of Congress to maintain their Reserve status.

418 U.S. at 228 (footnote omitted). [p482]

Respondents, therefore, are plainly without standing to sue as taxpayers. The Court of Appeals apparently reached the same conclusion. It remains to be seen whether respondents have alleged any other basis for standing to bring this suit.


Although the Court of Appeals properly doubted respondents' ability to establish standing solely on the basis of their taxpayer status, it considered their allegations of taxpayer injury to be "essentially an assumed role." 619 F.2d at 261.

Plaintiffs have no reason to expect, nor perhaps do they care about, any personal tax saving that might result should they prevail. The crux of the interest at stake, the plaintiffs argue, is found in the Establishment Clause, not in the supposed loss of money as such. As a matter of primary identity, therefore, the plaintiffs are not so much taxpayers as separationists. . . .

Ibid. In the court's view, respondents had established standing by virtue of an "‘injury in fact' to their shared individuated right to a government that ‘shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.'" Ibid. The court distinguished this "injury" from "the question of ‘citizen standing' as such." Id. at 262. Although citizens generally could not establish standing simply by claiming an interest in governmental observance of the Constitution, respondents had "set forth instead a particular and concrete injury" to a "personal constitutional right." Id. at 265.

The Court of Appeals was surely correct in recognizing that the Art. III requirements of standing are not satisfied by "the abstract injury in nonobservance of the Constitution asserted by . . . citizens." Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. at 223, n. 13. This Court repeatedly has rejected claims of standing predicated on

"the right, possessed by every citizen, to require that the [p483] Government be administered according to law. . . ." Fairchild v. Hughes, 258 U.S. 126, 129 [1922].

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 208 (1962). See Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, supra, at 216-222; Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972); Ex parte Levitt, 302 U.S. 633 (1937). Such claims amount to little more than attempts "to employ a federal court as a forum in which t o air . . . generalized grievances about the conduct of government." Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. at 106.

In finding that respondents had alleged something more than "the generalized interest of all citizens in constitutional governance," Schlesinger, supra, at 217, the Court of Appeals relied on factual differences which we do not think amount to legal distinctions. The court decided that respondents' claim differed from those in Schlesinger and Richardson, which were predicated, respectively, on the Incompatibility and Accounts Clauses, because

it is, at the very least, arguable that the Establishment Clause creates in each citizen a "personal constitutional right" to a government that does not establish religion.

619 F.2d at 265 (footnote omitted). The court found it unnecessary to determine whether this "arguable" proposition was correct, since it judged the mere allegation of a legal right sufficient to confer standing.

This reasoning process merely disguises, we think with a rather thin veil, the inconsistency of the court's results with our decisions in Schlesinger and Richardson. The plaintiffs in those cases plainly asserted a "personal right" to have the Government act in accordance with their views of the Constitution; indeed, we see no barrier to the assertion of such claims with respect to any constitutional provision. But assertion of a right to a particular kind of Government conduct, which the Government has violated by acting differently, cannot alone satisfy the requirements of Art. III without draining those requirements of meaning. [p484]

Nor can Schlesinger and Richardson be distinguished on the ground that the Incompatibility and Accounts Clauses are in some way less "fundamental" than the Establishment Clause. Each establishes a norm of conduct which the Federal Government is bound to honor -- to no greater or lesser extent than any other inscribed in the Constitution. To the extent the Court of Appeals relied on a view of standing under which the Art. III burdens diminish as the "importance" of the claim on the merits increases, we reject that notion. The requirement of standing "focuses on the party seeking to get his complaint before a federal court, and not on the issues he wishes to have adjudicated." Flast v. Cohen, supra, at 99. Moreover, we know of no principled basis on which to create a hierarchy of constitutional values or a complementary "sliding scale" of standing which might permit respondents to invoke the judicial power of the United States. [n20] [p485]

The proposition that all constitutional provisions are enforceable by any citizen simply because citizens are the ultimate beneficiaries of those provisions has no boundaries.

Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. at 227.

The complaint in this case shares a common deficiency with those in Schlesinger and Richardson. Although respondents claim that the Constitution has been violated, they claim nothing else. They fail to identify any personal injury suffered by them as a consequence of the alleged constitutional error, other than the psychological consequence presumably produced by observation of conduct with which one disagrees. That is not an injury sufficient to confer standing under Art. III, even though the disagreement is phrased in [p486] constitutional terms. It is evident that respondents are firmly committed to the constitutional principle of separation of church and State, but standing is not measured by the intensity of the litigant's interest or the fervor of his advocacy. "[T]hat concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues," Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. at 204, is the anticipated consequence of proceedings commenced by one who has been injured in fact; it is not a permissible substitute for the showing of injury itself. [n21]

In reaching this conclusion, we do not retreat from our earlier holdings that standing may be predicated on noneconomic injury. See, e.g., United States v. SCRAP, 412 U.S. at 686-688; Association of Data Processing Service Orgs. v. Camp, 397 U.S. at 153-154. We simply cannot see that respondents have alleged an injury of any kind, economic or otherwise, sufficient to confer standing. [n22] Respondents complain [p487] of a transfer of property located in Chester County, Pa. The named plaintiffs reside in Maryland and Virginia; [n23] their organizational headquarters are located in Washington, D.C. They learned of the transfer through a news release. Their claim that the Government has violated the Establishment Clause does not provide a special license to roam the country in search of governmental wrongdoing and to reveal their discoveries in federal court. [n24] The federal courts were simply not constituted as ombudsmen of the general welfare. [p488]


The Court of Appeals in this case ignored unambiguous limitations on taxpayer and citizen standing. It appears to have done so out of the conviction that enforcement of the Establishment Clause demands special exceptions from the requirement that a plaintiff allege "‘distinct and palpable injury to himself,' . . . that is likely to be redressed if the requested relief is granted." Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. at 100 (quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. at 501). The court derived precedential comfort from Flast v. Cohen:

The underlying justification for according standing in Flast, it seems, was the implicit recognition that the Establishment Clause does create in every citizen a personal constitutional right, such that any citizen, including taxpayers, may contest under that clause the constitutionality of federal expenditures.

619 F.2d at 262. [n25] The concurring opinion was even more direct. In its view, "statutes alleged to violate the Establishment Clause may not have an [p489] individual impact sufficient to confer standing in the traditional sense." Id. at 267-268. To satisfy "the need for an available plaintiff," id. at 267, and thereby to assure a basis for judicial review, respondents should be granted standing because, "as a practical matter, no one is better suited to bring this lawsuit and thus vindicate the freedoms embodied in the Establishment Clause," id. at 266.

Implicit in the foregoing is the philosophy that the business of the federal courts is correcting constitutional errors, and that "cases and controversies" are, at best, merely convenient vehicles for doing so, and, at worst, nuisances that may be dispensed with when they become obstacles to that transcendent endeavor. This philosophy has no place in our constitutional scheme. It does not become more palatable when the underlying merits concern the Establishment Clause. Respondents' claim of standing implicitly rests on the presumption that violations of the Establishment Clause typically will not cause injury sufficient to confer standing under the "traditional" view of Art. III. But "[t]he assumption that, if respondents have no standing to sue, no one would have standing, is not a reason to find standing." Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. at 227. This view would convert standing into a requirement that must be observed only when satisfied. Moreover, we are unwilling to assume that injured parties are nonexistent simply because they have not joined respondents in their suit. The law of averages is not a substitute for standing.

Were we to accept respondents' claim of standing in this case, there would be no principled basis for confining our exception to litigants relying on the Establishment Clause. Ultimately, that exception derives from the idea that the judicial power requires nothing more for its invocation than important issues and able litigants. [n26] The existence of injured [p490] parties who might not wish to bring suit becomes irrelevant. Because we are unwilling to countenance such a departure from the limits on judicial power contained in Art. III, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

It is so ordered.

1. The Act defines "excess property" as "property under the control of any Federal agency which is not required for its needs and the discharge of its responsibilities." 63 Stat. 378, 40 U.S.C. § 472(e).

2. The Act defines "surplus property" as "any excess property not required for the needs and the discharge of the responsibilities of all Federal agencies, as determined by the Administrator [of General Services]." 63 Stat. 379, 40 U.S.C. 472(g).

3. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 3411 3441(a)(2)(P) (1976 ed., Supp. III).

4. The property is to

be awarded to the applicant having a program of utilization which provides, in the opinion of the Department [of Education], the greatest public benefit.

34 CFR § 12.5 (1980). Applicants must be willing and able to assume immediate responsibility for the property, and must demonstrate the financial capacity to implement the approved program of educational use. § 12.8(b).

5. In calculating the public benefit allowance, the Secretary considers factors such as the applicant's educational accreditation, sponsorship of public service training, plans to introduce new instructional programs, commitment to student health and welfare, research, and service to the handicapped. 34 CFR pt. 12, Exh. A (1980).

6. The remaining property was conveyed to local school districts for educational purposes or set aside for park and recreational use. At the time of the conveyance, petitioner was known as the Northeast Bible College.

7. The appraiser placed no value on the buildings and fixtures situated on the tract. The buildings had been constructed for use as an Army hospital and, in his view, the expense necessary to render them useful for other purposes would have offset the value of such an endeavor.

8. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . ."

9. See Watt v. Energy Action Educational Foundation, ante at 161; Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Environmental Study Group, Inc., 438 U.S. 59, 72 (1978); Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 261, 262 (1977); Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 499 (1975); Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208, 218, 220-221 (1974); United States v. Richardson, 418 U.S. 166, 179-180 (1974); O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 493 (1974); Linda R. S. v. Richard D., 410 U.S. 614, 617-618 (1973).

10. See Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91, 100 (1979); Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Environmental Study Group, Inc., supra, at 80; Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 113-114 (1976).

11. See Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, supra, at 100; Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Environmental Study Group, Inc., 438 U.S. at 80.

12. See Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, supra, at 100, n. 6; Simon v. Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org., 426 U.S. 26, 39, n.19 (1976).

13. JUSTICE BRENNAN's dissent takes us to task for "tend[ing] merely to obfuscate, rather than inform, our understanding of the meaning of rights under the law." Post at 490. Were this Court constituted to operate a national classroom on "the meaning of rights" for the benefit of interested litigants, this criticism would carry weight. The teaching of Art. III, however, is that constitutional adjudication is available only on terms prescribed by the Constitution, among which is the requirement of a plaintiff with standing to sue. The dissent asserts that this requirement "overrides no other provision of the Constitution," post at 493, but just as surely the Art. III power of the federal courts does not wax and wane in harmony with a litigant's desire for a "hospitable forum," post at 494. Article III obligates a federal court to act only when it is assured of the power to do so, that is, when it is called upon to resolve an actual case or controversy. Then, and only then, may it turn its attention to other constitutional provisions and presume to provide a forum for the adjudication of rights. See Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 345 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

14. Respondent Americans United has alleged no injury to itself as an organization, distinct from injury to its taxpayer members. As a result, its claim to standing can be no different from those of the members it seeks to represent. The question is whether

its members, or any one of them, are suffering immediate or threatened injury as a result of the challenged action of the sort that would make out a justiciable case had the members themselves brought suit.

Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. at 511. See Simon v. Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org., supra, at 40; Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 739-741 (1972).

15. Respondents do not challenge the constitutionality of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act itself, but rather a particular Executive Branch action arguably authorized by the Act.

16. The Act was designed "to simplify the procurement, utilization, and disposal of Government property" in order to achieve an "efficient, businesslike system of property management." S.Rep. No. 475, 81st Cong., 1st Sess., 1 (1949). See H.R.Rep. No. 670, 81st Cong., 1st Sess., 1-2 (1949). Among the central purposes of the Act was the "maximum utilization of property already owned by the Government and minimum purchasing of new property." S.Rep. No. 475, supra, at 4. Congress recognized, however, that, from time to time, certain property would become surplus to the Government, and in particular, property acquired by the military to meet wartime contingencies. Congress provided a means of disposing of this property to meet well-recognized public priorities, including education. See S.Rep. No. 475, supra, at 4-5; H.R.Rep. No. 670, supra, at 5-6.

17. Although not necessary to our decision, we note that any connection between the challenged property transfer and respondents' tax burden is, at best, speculative, and, at worst, nonexistent. Although public funds were expended to establish the Valley Forge General Hospital, the land was acquired and the facilities constructed 30 years prior to the challenged transfer. Respondents do not challenge this expenditure, and we do not immediately perceive how such a challenge might now be raised. Nor do respondents dispute the Government's conclusion that the property has become useless for federal purposes, and ought to be disposed of in some productive manner. In fact, respondents' only objection is that the Government did not receive adequate consideration for the transfer, because petitioner's use of the property will not confer a public benefit. See Brief for Respondents Americans United et al. 13. Assuming, arguendo, that this proposition is true, an assumption by no means clear, there is no basis for believing that a transfer to a different purchaser would have added to Government receipts. As the Government argues, "the ultimate purchaser would, in all likelihood, have been another non-profit institution or local school district, rather than a purchaser for cash." Brief for Federal Respondents 30. Moreover, each year of delay in disposing of the property depleted the Treasury by the amounts necessary to maintain a facility that had lost its value to the Government. Even if respondents had brought their claim within the outer limits of Flast, therefore, they still would have encountered serious difficulty in establishing that they "personally would benefit in a tangible way from the court's intervention." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. at 508.

18. U.S.Const., Art. I, § 9, cl. 7 ("[A]nd a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time").

19. U.S.Const., Art. I, § 6, cl. 2 ("[N]o Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office").

20. JUSTICE BRENNAN's dissent is premised on a revisionist reading of our precedents which leads to the conclusion that the Art. III requirement of standing is satisfied by any taxpayer who contends "that the Federal Government has exceeded the bounds of the law in allocating its largesse," post at 508.

The concept of taxpayer injury necessarily recognizes the continuing stake of the taxpayer in the disposition of the Treasury to which he has contributed his taxes, and his right to have those funds put to lawful uses.

Post at 497-498. On this novel understanding, the dissent reads cases such as Frothingham and Flast as decisions on the merits of the taxpayers' claims. Frothingham is explained as a holding that a taxpayer ordinarily has no legal right to challenge congressional expenditures. Post at 499. The dissent divines from Flast the holding that a taxpayer does have an enforceable right "to challenge a federal bestowal of largesse" for religious purposes. Post at 509. This right extends to "the Government as a whole, regardless of which branch is at work in a particular instance," post at 511, and regardless of whether the challenged action was an exercise of the spending power, post at 512.

However appealing this reconstruction of precedent may be, it bears little resemblance to the cases on which it purports to rest. Frothingham and Flast were decisions that plainly turned on standing, and just as plainly they rejected any notion that the Art. III requirement of direct injury is satisfied by a taxpayer who contends "that the Federal Government has exceeded the bounds of the law in allocating its largesse." Post at 508. Moreover, although the dissent's view may lead to a result satisfying to many in this case, it is not evident how its substitution of "legal interest," post at 499, for "standing" enhances "our understanding of the meaning of rights under law," post at 490. Logically, the dissent must shoulder the burden of explaining why taxpayers with standing have no "legal interest" in congressional expenditures except when it is possible to allege a violation of the Establishment Clause: yet it does not attempt to do so.

Nor does the dissent's interpretation of standing adequately explain cases such as Schlesinger and Richardson. According to the dissent, the taxpayer plaintiffs in those cases lacked standing, not because they failed to challenge an exercise of the spending power, but because they did not complain of "the distribution of Government largesse." Post at 511. And yet, if the standing of a taxpayer is established by his "continuing stake . . . in the disposition of the Treasury to which he has contributed his taxes," post at 497-498, it would seem to follow that he can assert a right to examine the budget of the CIA, as in Richardson, see 418 U.S. at 170, and a right to argue that Members of Congress cannot claim Reserve pay from the Government, as in Schlesinger, see 418 U.S. at 211. Of course, both claims have been rejected, precisely because Art. III requires a demonstration of redressable injury that is not satisfied by a claim that tax moneys have been spent unlawfully.

21. In Schlesinger, we rejected the argument that standing should be recognized because "the adverse parties sharply conflicted in their interests and views, and were supported by able briefs and arguments." 418 U.S. at 225:

We have no doubt about the sincerity of respondents' stated objectives and the depth of their commitment to them. But the essence of standing "is not a question of motivation, but of possession of the requisite . . . interest that is, or is threatened to be, injured by the unconstitutional conduct." Doremus v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 429, 435 (1952).

Id. at 225-226.

22. Respondents rely on our statement in Association of Data Processing Service Orgs. v. Camp, 397 U.S. at 154, that

[a] person or family may have a spiritual stake in First Amendment values sufficient to give standing to raise issues concerning the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 [1963].

Respondents apparently construe this language to mean that any person asserting an Establishment Clause violation possesses a "spiritual stake" sufficient to confer standing. The language will not bear that weight. First, the language cannot be read apart from the context of its accompanying reference to Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963). In Schempp, the Court invalidated laws that required Bible reading in the public schools. Plaintiffs were children who attended the schools in question, and their parents. The Court noted:

It goes without saying that the laws and practices involved here can be challenged only by persons having standing to complain. . . . The parties here are school children and their parents, who are directly affected by the laws and practices against which their complaints are directed. These interests surely suffice to give the parties standing to complain.

Id. at 224, n. 9. The Court also drew a comparison with Doremus v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 429 (1952), in which the identical substantive issues were raised, but in which the appeal was "dismissed upon the graduation of the school child involved and because of the appellants' failure to establish standing as taxpayers." 374 U.S. at 224, n. 9. The Court's discussion of the standing issue is not extensive, but it is sufficient to show the error in respondents' broad reading of the phrase "spiritual stake." The plaintiffs in Schempp had standing not because their complaint rested on the Establishment Clause -- for, as Doremus demonstrated, that is insufficient -- but because impressionable schoolchildren were subjected to unwelcome religious exercises or were forced to assume special burdens to avoid them. Respondents have alleged no comparable injury.

23. Respondent Americans United claims that it has certain unidentified members who reside in Pennsylvania. It does not explain, however, how this fact establishes a cognizable injury where none existed before. Respondent is still obligated to allege facts sufficient to establish that one or more of its members has suffered, or is threatened with, an injury other than their belief that the transfer violated the Constitution.

24. Respondents also claim standing by reference to the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 702 which authorizes judicial review at the instance of any person who has been "adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute." Neither the Administrative Procedure Act nor any other congressional enactment can lower the threshold requirements of standing under Art. III. See, e.g., Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. at 100; Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. at 501. Respondents do not allege that the Act creates a legal right, "the invasion of which creates standing," Linda R. S. v. Richard D., 410 U.S. at 617, n. 3, and there is no other basis for arguing that its existence alters the rules of standing otherwise applicable to this case.

25. The majority believed that the only thing which prevented this Court from openly acknowledging this position was the fact that the complaint in Flast had alleged no basis for standing other than the plaintiffs' taxpayer status. 619 F.2d at 262. As the dissent below pointed out, this view is simply not in accord with the facts. See id. at 269-270. The Flast plaintiffs and several amici strongly urged the Court to adopt the same view of standing for which respondents argue in this case. The Court plainly chose not to do so. Even if respondents were correct in arguing that the Court in Flast was bound by a "perceived limitation in the pleadings," 619 F.2d at 262, we are not so bound in this case, and we find no merit in respondents' vision of standing.

26. Were we to recognize standing premised on an "injury" consisting solely of an alleged violation of a "‘personal constitutional right' to a government that does not establish religion," id. at 265, a principled consistency would dictate recognition of respondents' standing to challenge execution of every capital sentence on the basis of a personal right to a government that does not impose cruel and unusual punishment, or standing to challenge every affirmative action program on the basis of a personal right to a government that does not deny equal protection of the laws, to choose but two among as many possible examples as there are commands in the Constitution.