Bradfield v. Roberts/Opinion of the Court

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Bradfield v. Roberts by Rufus Wheeler Peckham
Opinion of the Court
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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

175 U.S. 291

BRADFIELD  v.  ROBERTS

 Argued: October 27, 1899. --- Decided: December 4, 1899


Passing the various objections made to the maintenance of this suit on account of an alleged defect of parties, and also in regard to the character in which the complainant sues, merely that of a citizen and taxpayer of the United States and a resident of the District of Columbia, we come to the main question as to the validity of the agreement between the commissioners of the District and the directors of the hospital, founded upon the appropriation contained in the act of Congress, the contention being that the agreement if carried out would result in an appropriation by Congress of money to a religious society, thereby violating the constitutional provision which forbids Congress from passing any law respecting an establishment of religion. Art. 1 of the Amendments to Constitution.

The appropriation is to be found in the general appropriation act for the government of the District of Columbia, approved March 3, 1897, 29 Stat. at L. 665, 679, chap. 387. It reads: 'For two isolating buildings, to be constructed, in the discretion of the commissioners of the District of Columbia, on the grounds of two hospitals, and to be operated as a part of such hospitals, thirty thousand dollars.' Acting under the authority of this appropriation the commissioners entered into the agreement in question.

As the bill alleges that Providence Hospital was incorporated by an act of Congress approved April 8, 1864 (13 Stat. at L. 43, chap. 50), and assumes to give some of its provisions, the act thus referred to is substantially made a part of the bill, and it is therefore set forth in the margin.

The act shows that the individuals named therein and their successors in office were incorporated under the name of 'The Directors of Providence Hospital,' with power to

An Act to Incorporate Providence Hospital of the City of Washington, District of Columbia.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Lucy Gwynn, Teresa Angela Costello, Sarah McDonald, Mary E. Spalding, and Mary Calloll, and their successors in office, are hereby made, declared, and constituted a corporation and body politic, in law and in fact, under the name and style of the directors of Providence Hospital, and by that name they shall be and are hereby made capable in law to sue and be sued, to plead and be impleaded, in any court within the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia; to have and use a common seal, and to alter or amend the same at pleasure; to have, purchase, receive, possess, and enjoy any estate in lands, tenements, annuities, goods, chattels, monyes, or effects, and to grant, devise, or dispose of the same in such manner as they may deem most for the interest of the hospital: Provided, That the real estate held by said corporation shall not exceed in value the sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the said corporation and body politic shall have full power to appoint from their own body a president and such other officers as they may deem necessary for the purposes of their creation; and in case of the death, resignation, or refusal to serve, of any of their number, the remaining members shall elect and appoint other persons in lieu of those whose places may have been vacated; and the said corporation shall have full power and all the rights of opening and keeping a hospital in the city of Washington for the care of such sick and invalid persons as may place themselves under the treatment and care of the said corporation.

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That the said corporation shall also have and enjoy full power and authority to make such by-laws, rules, and regulations as may be necessary for the general accomplishment of the objects of said hospital: Provided, That they be not inconsistent with the laws in force in the District of Columbia: And provided, further, That this act shall be liable to be amended, altered, or repealed, at the pleasure of Congress. receive, hold, and convey personal and real property, as provided in its 1st section. By the 2d section the corporation was granted 'full power and all the rights of opening and keeping a hospital in the city of Washington for the care of such sick and invalid persons as may place themselves under the treatment and care of the said corporation.' The 3d section gave it full power to make such by-laws, rules, and regulations that might be necessary for the general accomplishment of the objects of the hospital, not inconsistent with the laws in force in the District of Columbia. Nothing is said about religion or about the religious faith of the incorporators of this institution in the act of incorporation. It is simply the ordinary case of the incorporation of a hospital for the purposes for which such an institution is generally conducted. It is claimed that the allegation in the complainant's bill, that the said 'Providence Hospital is a private eleemosynary corporation, and that to the best of complainant's knowledge and belief it is composed of members of a monastic order or sisterhood of the Roman Catholic Church, and is conducted under the auspices of said church; that the title to its property is vested in the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland,' renders the agreement void for the reason therein stated, which is that Congress has no power to make 'a law respecting a religious establishment,' a phrase which is not synonymous with that used in the Constitution, which prohibits the passage of a law 'respecting an establishment of religion.'

If we were to assume, for the purpose of this question only, that under this appropriation an agreement with a religious corporation of the tenor of this agreement would be invalid, as resulting indirectly in the passage of an act respecting an establishment of religion, we are unable to see that the complainant in his bill shows that the corporation is of the kind described, but on the contrary he has clearly shown that it is not.

The above-mentioned allegations in the complainant's bill do not change the legal character of the corporation or render it on that account a religious or sectarian body. Assuming that the hospital is a private eleemosynary corporation, the fact that its members, according to the belief of the complainant, are members of a monastic order or sisterhood of the Roman Catholic, and the further fact that the hospital is conducted under the auspices of said church, are wholly immaterial, as is also the allegation regarding the title to its property. The statute provides as to its property and makes no provision for its being held by anyone other than itself. The facts above stated do not in the least change the legal character of the hospital, or make a religious corporation out of a purely secular one as constituted by the law of its being. Whether the individuals who compose the corporation under its charter happen to be all Roman Catholics, or all Methodists, or Presbyterians, or Unitarians, or members of any other religious organization, or of no organization at all, is of not the slightest consequence with reference to the law of its incorporation, nor can the individual beliefs upon religious matters of the various incorporators be inquired into. Nor is it material that the hospital may be conducted under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. To be conducted under the auspices is to be conducted under the influence or patronage of that church. The meaning of the allegation is that the church exercises great and perhaps controlling influence over the management of the hospital. It must, however, be managed pursuant to the law of its being. That the influence of any particular church may be powerful over the members of a nonsectarian and secular corporation, incorporated for a certain defined purpose and with clearly stated powers, is surely not sufficient to convert such a corporation into a religious or sectarian body. That fact does not alter the legal character of the corporation, which is incorporated under an act of Congress, and its powers, duties, and character are to be solcly measured by the charter under which it alone has any legal existence. There is no allegation that its hospital work is confined to members of that church or that in its management the hospital has been conducted so as to violate its charter in the smallest degree. It is simply the case of a secular corporation being managed by people who hold to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, but who nevertheless are managing the corporation according to the law under which it exists. The charter itself does not limit the exercise of its corporate powers to the members of any particular religious denomination, but, on the contrary, those powers are to be exercised in favor of anyone seeking the ministrations of that kind of an institution. All that can be said of the corporation itself is that it has been incorporated by an act of Congress, and for its legal powers and duties that act must be exclusively referred to. As stated in the opinion of the court of appeals, this corporation 'is not declared the trustee of any church or religious society. Its property is to be acquired in its own name and for its own purposes; that property and its business are to be managed in its own way, subject to no visitation, supervision, or control by any ecclesiastical authority whatever, but only to that of the government which created it. In respect, then, of its creation, organization, management, and ownership of property it is an ordinary private corporation whose rights are determinable by the law of the land, and the religious opinions of whose members are not subjects of inquiry.'

It is not contended that Congress has no power in the District to appropriate money for the purpose expressed in the appropriation, and it is not doubted that it has power to authorize the commissioners of the District of Columbia to enter into a contract with the trustees of an incorporated hospital for the purposes mentioned in the agreement in this case, and the only objection set up is the alleged 'sectarian character of the hospital and the specific and limited object of its ereation.'

The other allegations in complainant's bill are simply statements of his opinion in regard to the results necessarily flowing from the appropriation in question when connected with the agreement mentioned.

The act of Congress, however, shows there is nothing sectarian in the corporation, and 'the specific and limited object of its creation' is the opening and keeping a hospital in the city of Washington for the care of such sick and invalid persons as may place themselves under the treatment and care of the corporation. To make the agreement was within the discretion of the commissioners, and was a fair exercise thereof.

The right reserved in the third section of the charter to amend, alter, or repeal the act leaves full power in Congress to remedy any abuse of the charter privileges.

Without adverting to any other objections to the maintenance of this suit, it is plain that complainant wholly fails to set forth a cause of action, and the bill was properly dismissed by the Court of Appeals, and its decree will therefore be affirmed.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).