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

    Brief Fact Summary. The Respondents, Yoder and other members of a Wisconsin Amish community (Respondents) took issue with the State’s compulsory education law, maintaining that keeping children in school until the age of sixteen was against their religious principals, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a true religious interest exists, a state cannot enforce a law, which abrogates that interest, provided the public interest in enforcing the law is not otherwise burdened.

    Facts. The Respondents refused to send their children to school after they completed the eighth grade, in conformance with their religious practices. The Petitioner, the State of Wisconsin (Petitioner), brought an action seeking to enforce its compulsory education law. The Respondents were convicted in violation of the law. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed, sustaining the Respondents’ argument that their actions fell under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution). Wisconsin appealed, and the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) granted certiorari.

    Issue. This case considers whether members of a religious community can be compelled to follow a compulsory education scheme, which could be detrimental to their own religious teachings.

    Held. Affirmed.
    After applying a balancing test and determining that the interests of the state in compelling attendance were secondary to the Amish community in preserving its traditions of informal vocational education, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

    Dissent. Justice William Douglas (J. Douglas) dissented, noting that the claims brought herein were by parents and may not have necessarily been the viewpoints of their high-school-age children.
    Concurrence. Justice Potter Stewart (J. Stewart) and Justice Byron White (J. White) concurred in the judgment of the Supreme Court.

    Discussion. While there are valid governmental interests to be upheld by compulsory education schemes, these interests do not necessarily outweigh the Free Exercise of religion as mandated by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

    Employment Division,
    Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith
    Citation. 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

    Brief Fact Summary. The Respondents, Smith and others (Respondents), were discharged from their employment for ingesting peyote in furtherance of their Native American religious beliefs.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. While the Free Exercise Clause holds great weight when considering State laws, it does not mandate the allowance and acceptance of activities that would otherwise be seen as criminal.

    Facts. The Respondents, both members of the Native American Church, ingested peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony. Because their action was directly related to their employment at a drug rehabilitation facility, they were both terminated. Upon applying for unemployment benefits, the Respondents were summarily turned down, based on misconduct associated with the use of drugs. Respondents appealed, relying on Sherbert, based on the fact that their conduct was in furtherance of their Free Exercise rights as outlined by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution). The Oregon Supreme Court held that Respondents religious use of peyote served to invalidate the unemployment scheme. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) granted certiorari to consider this decision.

    Issue. This case considers whether the Free Exercise Clause may be used to allow an activity that is otherwise illegal and in derogation of the public interest.

    Held. Reversed.
    The Court disagreed that a religious motivation for the use of peyote invalidated the criminal conduct associated with that use. The Supreme Court weighed the interests of the Petitioner, the Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon (Petitioner) and the Respondents and found that the public policy against drug use was to be afforded greater latitude than the ingestion of peyote under the guise of religious practice. Regardless of how the ingestion occurred, there was still a danger both to the individual and secondary dangers to society when drug usage was sustained.

    Dissent. Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun) dissented, holding the converse of the Supreme Court’s ruling to be true: that the Petitioner’s interest in enforcing its drug laws against religious use of peyote is not sufficient to outweigh the Respondents right to freely exercise their religion.
    Concurrence. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (J. O’Connor) concurred, noting that granting a selective exemption for religious use of a drug would impair a compelling state interest in prohibiting the use of peyote by its citizens.

    Discussion. This case stands for the proposition that the Free Exercise Clause cannot be used as an excuse to condone an activity that would normally be seen as a serious derogation from public policy.

    Constitutional Law Keyed to Stone, Seidman, Sunstein & Tushnet (Fourth Edition)

    CHAPTER I.


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