Employment Division v. Smith
Decided on Apr. 17, 1990; 494 US 872


Oregon had a compelling state interest in prohibiting sacramental peyote use, and thus could deny unemployment benefits
to anyone who was dismissed from a job for smoking peyote.

 

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Free exercise of religion

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment permit the State of Oregon to include religiously inspired peyote use within the reach of its general criminal prohibition on the 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?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"Respondents Smith and Black were fired by a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of their Native American Church. Their applications for unemployment compensation were denied by the State of Oregon under a state law disqualifying employees discharged for work-related 'misconduct.'

Holding that the denials violated respondents' First Amendment free exercise rights, the State Court of Appeals reversed. The State Supreme Court affirmed, but this Court vacated the judgment and remanded for a determination whether sacramental peyote use is proscribed by the State's controlled substance law, which makes it a felony to knowingly or intentionally possess the drug.

Pending that determination, the Court refused to decide whether such use is protected by the Constitution. On remand, the State Supreme Court held that sacramental peyote use violated, and was not excepted from, the state-law prohibition, but concluded that that prohibition was invalid under the Free Exercise Clause."

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Oregon.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Craig J. Dorsay argued the cause and filed briefs for respondents.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Steven R. Shapiro and John A. Powell; for the American Jewish Congress by Amy Adelson, Lois C. Waldman, and Marc D. Stern; for the Association on American Indian Affairs et al. by Steven C. Moore and Jack Trope; and for the Council on Religious Freedom by Lee Boothby and Robert W. Nixon.

Dave Frohnmayer, Attorney General of Oregon, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were James E. Mountain, Jr., Deputy Attorney General, Virginia L. Linder, Solicitor General, and Michael D. Reynolds, Assistant Solicitor General.


IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

The US Supreme Court held that "The Free Exercise Clause permits the State to prohibit sacramental peyote use and thus to deny unemployment benefits to persons discharged for such use.

Although a State would be 'prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]' in violation of the Clause if it sought to ban the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts solely because of their religious motivation, the Clause does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a law that incidentally forbids (or requires) the performance of an act that his religious belief requires (or forbids) if the law is not specifically directed to religious practice and is otherwise constitutional as applied to those who engage in the specified act for nonreligious reasons...

Respondents' claim for a religious exemption from the Oregon law cannot be evaluated under the balancing test set forth in the line of cases...whereby governmental actions that substantially burden a religious practice must be justified by a 'compelling governmental interest.' That test was developed in a context...that lent itself to individualized governmental assessment of the reasons for the relevant conduct. The test is inapplicable to an across-the-board criminal prohibition on a particular form of conduct...

Thus, although it is constitutionally permissible to exempt sacramental peyote use from the operation of drug laws, it is not constitutionally required."

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

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged affirmance of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Oregon; the Supreme Court reversed in a 3-6 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.