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Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith

    Brief Fact Summary. The Respondent, Smith (Respondent), sought unemployment compensation benefits after he was fired from his job for using peyote in a religious ceremony. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Respondent should be awarded unemployment compensation as his right to free exercise of religion was violated. The Petitioner, the Employment Division, Department of Human Resources (Petitioner), appeal the case.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The right of free exercise does not relive an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law makes criminal conduct that his religion proscribes.

    Facts. The Respondent was a member of the Native American Church, which has as a part of is religious rituals, the supervised consumption of peyote. Peyote is a controlled substance under Oregon law and possession of peyote is a criminal offense. The Respondent was fired from his job at a private drug rehabilitation clinic because he ingested peyote as part of his church’s ritual. The Respondent sought unemployment benefits, which where denied as he had been dismissed for work related misconduct. On his appeal from denial of unemployment benefits, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that as the state law did not contain an exemption from its criminal statute for religious consumption of peyote, that the criminal ban was unconstitutional as applied to peyote in this setting and that the Respondent was entitled to unemployment compensation. The Petitioner appeals the case.

    Issue. Whether a statute, which prohibits the use of religiously inspired peyote and denies unemployment benefits to those who have been dismissed from their job because of this use of peyote violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Held. Reversed.

    Dissent. It is the State’s narrow interest in refusing to make an exception for the religious, ceremonial use of peyote that is in question and which violates the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.
    Concurrence. Under the Supreme Court of the United State’s (Supreme Court) established First Amendment constitutional jurisprudence, the Supreme Court has recognized that freedom to act, unlike the freedom to believe, cannot be absolute. The Supreme Court has respected both the First Amendment’s express textual mandate and the governmental interest in regulation of conduct, by requiring the Government to justify any substantial burden on religiously motivated conduct by a compelling state interest and by means narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. The compelling interest test effectuates the First Amendment’s command that religious liberty is an independent liberty, that it occupies a preferred position and that the Supreme Court will not permit encroachment upon this liberty, whether direct or indirect, unless required by clear and compelling government interests of the highest order.

    Discussion. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits government interference with religious beliefs, but it generally does not prohibit regulation of conduct. If the governmental action regulates general conduct, including religious conduct it is valid. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution does not require religious exemption from generally applicable governmental regulations that happen to burden religious conduct.


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