Employment Division v. Smith (1988)

Reference: The Oyez Project at Chicago-Kent

Facts of the Case

Two Native Americans who worked as counselors for a private drug rehabilitation organization, ingested peyote — a powerful hallucinogen — as part of their religious ceremonies as members of the Native American Church. As a result of this conduct, the rehabilitation organization fired the counselors. The counselors filed a claim for unemployment compensation. The government denied them benefits because the reason for their dismissal was considered work-related “misconduct.” The counselors lost their battle in state court. But the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Oregon Supreme Court’s judgment against the disgruntled employees, and returned the case to the Oregon courts to determine whether or not sacramental use of illegal drugs violated Oregon’s state drug laws (485 U.S. 660 (1988)). On remand, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded that while Oregon drug law prohibited the consumption of illegal drugs for sacramental religious uses, this prohibition violated the free exercise clause. The case returned to the U.S. Supreme Court in this new posture.

Question

Can a state deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes?

Conclusion

Decision: 6 votes for Employment Division, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Free Exercise of Religion

Yes. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, observed that the Court has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate. Allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.” Scalia cited as examples compulsory military service, payment of taxes, vaccination requirements, and child-neglect laws.

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Read the full case brief here.