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Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith

Citation. 494 U.S. 872 (1990)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The respondents challenged the state practice of including religiously inspired peyote use within the reach of its general criminal prohibition on use of that drug on the ground that it violates the First Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A State could not condition the availability of unemployment insurance on an individual’s willingness to forgo conduct required by his religion.


Respondents, Alfred Smith and Galen Black were fired from their jobs with a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native American Church, of which both are members. When respondents applied to petitioner Employment Division for unemployment compensation, they were determined to be ineligible for benefits because they had been discharged for work-related misconduct.


Does the First Amendment permit the State of Oregon to include religiously inspired peyote use within the reach of its general criminal prohibition on use of that drug, and thus permit the State to deny unemployment benefits to persons dismissed from their jobs because of such religiously inspired use?


No, because respondents’ ingestion of peyote was prohibited under Oregon law, and because that prohibition is constitutional, Oregon may, consistent with the Free Exercise Clause, deny respondents unemployment compensation when their dismissal results from use of the drug. An individual’s religious beliefs do not excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.


Justice Blackmun

It is important to articulate the state interest involved. It is not the State’s broad interest in fighting the critical “war on drugs” that must be weighed against respondents’ claim, but the State’s narrow interest in refusing to make an exception for the religious, ceremonial use of peyote. The State proclaims an interest in protecting the health and safety of its citizens from the dangers of unlawful drugs. However, it does not offer any evidence that the religious use of peyote has ever harmed anyone. Though the State must treat all religions equally, and not favor one over another, the obligation is fulfilled by the uniform application of the “compelling interest” test to all free exercise claims, not by reaching uniform results as to all claims.


Justice O’Connor

The freedom to act, unlike the freedom to believe, cannot be absolute. The Government must justify any substantial burden on religiously motivated conduct by a compelling state interest and by means narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Even if a government’s criminal laws might usually serve a compelling interest in health, safety, public order, the First Amendment at least requires a case-by-case determination of the question, sensitive to the facts of each particular claim. The Court cannot assume, merely because a law carries criminal sanctions and is generally applicable, that the First Amendment never requires the State to grant a limited exemption for religiously motivated conduct.


Values that are protected against government interference through enshrinement in the Bill of Rights are not banished from the political process. Just as a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to the press by the First Amendment is likely to enact laws that affirmatively foster the dissemination of the printed word, so also a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to religious belief can be expected to be solicitous of that value in its legislation as well. It is therefore not surprising that many States have made an exception to their drug laws for sacramental peyote use. But to say that a nondiscriminatory religious-practice exemption is permitted, or even that it is desirable, is not to say that it is constitutionally required, and that the appropriate occasions for its creation can be discerned by the courts. It may be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself.

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