Two 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. They were fired and filed a claim for unemployment compensation, which was denied by the state.
Generally applicable laws not targeting specific religious practices do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Two 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. Their employer, the rehabilitation organization, consequently fired the counselors. The counselors subsequently filed a claim for unemployment compensation. However, the state denied their respective claims because they had violated a state criminal statute.
Can a state deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes?
Yes, a state may deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes.
Justice Blackmun agreed with Justice O’Connor that the compelling interest test should apply to Oregon’s ban on peyote, but disagreed with her that the ban was supported by a compelling interest that was narrowly tailored. Oregon claimed an interest in protecting the health and safety of its citizens from the dangers of illegal drug use; however, there was no evidence that religious use of peyote actually harmed anyone, especially given that the religious use occurs in a heavily supervised context.
Justice O’Connor disagreed with the analytical framework constructed by the majority, preferring instead to apply the traditional compelling interest test to Oregon’s peyote ban. The First Amendment has to reach both laws that expressly target religion as well as so-called “neutral laws of general applicability,” in order for the constitutional protection of the Free Exercise Clause to have teeth.
Justice O’Connor came to the conclusion that that uniform application of Oregon’s criminal prohibition was essential to accomplish the compelling interest of preventing the physical harm caused by the use of peyote.
This Court has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuses him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate. To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the state’s interest is compelling, contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.
Oregon’s ban on the possession of peyote is not a law specifically aimed at a physical act engaged in for a religious reason. Rather, it is a law that applies to everyone who might possess peyote, for whatever reason–a “neutral law of general applicability.” The plaintiffs may not use their religious motivation to use peyote in order to place themselves beyond the reach of Oregon’s neutral, generally applicable ban on the possession of peyote.