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Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith

    Brief Fact Summary. Smith (Respondent) was denied unemployment benefits because he uses peyote as part of his religion.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Free exercise of religion does not preclude adherence to valid, nondiscriminatory laws and regulations.

    Facts. Oregon prohibits possession of controlled substances without a prescription. Peyote is on the list of controlled substances. Respondent, a member of the Native American Church was fired from his job for using peyote as part of a religious ceremony. Respondent then filed for unemployment benefits but was denied because of his “misconduct.”

    Issue. Can the state criminally prohibit the religious use of peyote under the Free Exercise Clause?

    Held. Yes. The law is applied to all citizens equally regardless of religious belief. It was not designed to impede upon the religious practice of the Native American Church.

    Dissent. The majority narrowly defined free exercise. The fact that Respondent’s religious ceremony has been outlawed is an unconstitutional restraint on his right to practice his religion.
    Concurrence. This state law is tied to a legitimate, compelling state interest in eliminating illegal drug use and its secondary criminal effects. This goal outweighs any incidental religious ceremonial use of peyote.

    Discussion. Free exercise of religion includes the right to believe whatever religion one chooses. The state may not prohibit acts simply to eliminate a particular religion. On the other hand, religious beliefs do not excuse individuals compliance with the law. The state must have the power to generally enforce laws regardless of religious beliefs or else it will lead to the development of an elaborate scheme of exceptions with no rule.


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