Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division
Decided on Apr. 6, 1981; 450 US 707


A. Issues Discussed: Free Exercise Clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the State's denial of unemployment compensation benefits to someone who terminated his job because his religious beliefs forbade participation in the production of armaments, constitute a violation of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion?


A. Background:

"Thomas, a Jehovah's Witness, was hired initially to work in the roll foundry at Blaw-Knox. The function of that department was to fabricate sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses. On his application form, he listed his membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses, and noted that his hobbies were Bible study and Bible reading. However, he placed no conditions on his employment; and he did not describe his religious tenets in any detail on the form.

Approximately a year later, the roll foundry closed, and Blaw-Knox transferred Thomas to a department that fabricated turrets for military tanks. On his first day at this new job, Thomas realized that the work he was doing was weapons related. He checked the bulletin board where in-plant openings were listed, and discovered that all of the remaining departments at Blaw-Knox were engaged directly in the production of weapons. Since no transfer to another department would resolve his problem, he asked for a layoff. When that request was denied, he quit, asserting that he could not work on weapons without violating the principles of his religion...

Upon leaving Blaw-Knox, Thomas applied for unemployment compensation benefits under the Indiana Employment Security Act...

The referee concluded... that Thomas' termination was not based upon a 'good cause [arising] in connection with [his] work,' as required by the Indiana unemployment compensation statute. Accordingly, he was held not entitled to benefits. The Review Board adopted the referee's findings and conclusions, and affirmed the denial of benefits.

The Indiana Court of Appeals, accepting the finding that Thomas terminated his employment 'due to his religious convictions,' reversed the decision of the Review Board and... ordered the Board to extend benefits to Thomas.

The Supreme Court of Indiana, dividing 3-2, vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, and denied Thomas benefits."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Indiana.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Judith Levin for the American Civil Liberties Union; by Nathan Z. Dershowitz for the American Jewish Congress; and by Leo Pfeffer for the Jewish Peace Fellowship et al.

Blanca Bianchi de la Torre argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were Seymour H. Moskowitz and Michael Martin Mulder.

William E. Daily argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Theodore L. Sendak, Attorney General of Indiana, and Janis L. Summers and Cindy A. Ellis, Deputy Attorneys General.


"Only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause, which, by its terms, gives special protection to the exercise of religion. The determination of what is a 'religious' belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task, as the division in the Indiana Supreme Court attests. However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection...

In reaching its conclusion, the Indiana court seems to have placed considerable reliance on the facts that Thomas was 'struggling' with his beliefs and that he was not able to 'articulate' his belief precisely...

The narrow function of a reviewing court in this context is to determine whether there was an appropriate finding that petitioner terminated his work because of an honest conviction that such work was forbidden by his religion. Not surprisingly, the record before the referee and the Review Board was not made with an eye to the microscopic examination often exercised in appellate judicial review. However, judicial review is confined to the facts as found and conclusions drawn. On this record, it is clear that Thomas terminated his employment for religious reasons.

There is no evidence in the record to indicate that the number of people who find themselves in the predicament of choosing between benefits and religious beliefs is large enough to create 'widespread unemployment,' or even to seriously affect unemployment - and no such claim was advanced by the Review Board. Similarly, although detailed inquiry by employers into applicants' religious beliefs is undesirable, there is no evidence in the record to indicate that such inquiries will occur in Indiana, or that they have occurred in any of the states that extend benefits to people in the petitioner's position. Nor is there any reason to believe that the number of people terminating employment for religious reasons will be so great as to motivate employers to make such inquiries.

Neither of the interests advanced is sufficiently compelling to justify the burden upon Thomas' religious liberty. Accordingly, Thomas is entitled to receive benefits..."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Indiana.

Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 1 Con

  • Burger, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Supreme Court of Indiana's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.