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Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources v. Smith

    Brief Fact Summary. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) held that Oregon could prohibit the religious use of the drug peyote and such prohibition was permissible under the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The free exercise of religion means first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires. But the “exercise of religion” often involves not only belief and profession, but the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts. The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of its public policy, “cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.” 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, permitting him by virtue, “to become a law unto himself,” contradicts both constitutional and common sense.

    Facts. The Respondents, Alfred Smith and Galen Black (Respondents), were fired from their jobs for using peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony at their Native American Church. When Respondents applied to the Petitioner, Employment Division, Dept. of Human Resources (Petitioner), for unemployment compensation, they were determined ineligible for benefits because they had been discharged for work-related “misconduct.” The Oregon Supreme Court found on remand that the Respondents’ peyote use fell within the prohibition of Oregon’s criminal laws, that those laws made no exception for sacramental use of the drug, but the ban on the sacramental peyote use was invalid under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Thus, Oregon could not deny unemployment benefits for engaging in conduct that was constitutionally protected.

    Issue. Whether the prohibition of the use of peyote, even for sacramental purposes, is constitutional?

    Held. Yes. Judgment of the Oregon Supreme Court reversed. This Court has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with otherwise valid laws prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate. The Respondents’ free exercise claim is unconnected to any communicative activity or parental right. The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of its public policy, “cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.” 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, permitting him by virtue, “to become a law unto himself,” contradicts both constitutional and common sense. The court cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, e
    very regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order. Therefore, the prohibition of the use of peyote, even for sacramental purposes, is constitutional.

    Dissent. The state’s asserted interests amounts only to the symbolic preservation of an unenforced prohibition. But a government’s interest in symbolism cannot suffice to abrogate the constitutional rights of individuals.
    Concurrence. This holding dramatically departs from well-settled First Amendment constitutional jurisprudence, appears unnecessary to resolve the question presented and is incompatible with our nation’s commitment to individual religious liberty.

    Discussion. Although this case alludes to the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s free exercise precedents, it does not discuss whether the framers would have viewed some religious exemptions as mandatory.


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