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


484 U.S. 872 (1990)


Facts of the Case:

Two Native Americans were fired from their jobs because they took peyote for sacramental purposes. The two had been employed with a private drug rehabilitation organization and were denied unemployment compensation on the grounds that their dismissal was for work- related ‘misconduct’. The Oregon Supreme Court initially ruled that the two were entitled to benefits because the state’s interest in its compensation fund did not outweigh the burden the decision placed on the pairs religious beliefs. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case back to the state courts for them to rule whether it was constitutional to proscribe the use of sacramental peyote. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the law was allowable, and the case returned to the U.S. Supreme Court.



Decision:

The Court upheld the Oregon law by a vote of 6-3.


Majority Opinion: (Justice Scalia)

In a series of earlier rulings, the Court decided that a State could not condition the availability of unemployment insurance on an individual’s willingness to forego conduct required by his religion. However, this is not the case when the conduct is prohibited by law. The Oregon law is not specifically directed at the Native Americans’ religious practice and is constitutional when applied to other citizens. “It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]...to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended....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 of his beliefs, “to become a law unto himself,” contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.” To adopt a true ‘compelling interest’ requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy.



Significance:

As with its ruling in Lying v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association, the Court warned of the perils of allowing a minority religious group to have veto power over laws. The neutrality of laws and their general applicability protect them from First Amendment challenge.



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