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Employment Div. v. Smith

Supreme Court of the United States

November 6, 1989, Argued ; April 17, 1990, Decided

No. 88-1213


 [*874]  [***882]  [**1597]    JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

 This case requires us to decide whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment permits the State of Oregon to include religiously inspired peyote use within the reach of its general criminal prohibition on use of that drug, and thus permits the State to deny unemployment benefits to persons dismissed from their jobs because of such religiously inspired use.

] Oregon law prohibits the knowing or intentional possession of a "controlled substance" unless the substance has been prescribed by a medical practitioner. Ore. Rev. Stat. § 475.992(4) (1987). The law defines "controlled substance" as a drug classified in Schedules I through V of the Federal Controlled Substances Act, 21 U. S. C. §§ 811-812, as modified by the State Board of Pharmacy. Ore. Rev. Stat. § 475.005(6)  [****6]  (1987). Persons who violate this provision by possessing a controlled substance listed on Schedule I are "guilty of a Class B felony." § 475.992(4)(a). As compiled by the State Board of Pharmacy under its statutory authority, see § 475.035, Schedule I contains the drug peyote, a hallucinogen derived from the plant Lophophora williamsii Lemaire. Ore. Admin. Rule 855-80-021(3)(s) (1988).

Respondents Alfred Smith and  [***883]  Galen Black (hereinafter respondents) were fired from their jobs with a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native American Church, of which  [**1598]  both are members. When respondents applied to petitioner Employment Division (hereinafter petitioner) for unemployment compensation, they were determined to be ineligible for benefits because they had been discharged for work-related "misconduct." The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed that determination, holding that the denial of benefits violated respondents' free exercise rights under the First Amendment.

 [*875]  On appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, petitioner argued that the denial of benefits was permissible because [****7]  respondents' consumption of peyote was a crime under Oregon law. The Oregon Supreme Court reasoned, however, that the criminality of respondents' peyote use was irrelevant to resolution of their constitutional claim -- since the purpose of the "misconduct" provision under which respondents had been disqualified was not to enforce the State's criminal laws but to preserve the financial integrity of the compensation fund, and since that purpose was inadequate to justify the burden that disqualification imposed on respondents' religious practice. Citing our decisions in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), and Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), the court concluded that respondents were entitled to payment of unemployment benefits.  Smith v. Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources, 301 Ore. 209, 217-219, 721 P. 2d 445, 449-450 (1986). We granted certiorari. 480 U.S. 916 (1987).

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494 U.S. 872 *; 110 S. Ct. 1595 **; 108 L. Ed. 2d 876 ***; 1990 U.S. LEXIS 2021 ****; 58 U.S.L.W. 4433; 52 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 855; 53 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P39,826; Unemployment Ins. Rep. (CCH) P21,933


Subsequent History: Rehearing denied by Employment Div., Dep't of Human Resources v. Smith, 496 U.S. 913, 110 L. Ed. 2d 285, 110 S. Ct. 2605, 1990 U.S. LEXIS 2979, 58 U.S.L.W. 3770 (1990)

On remand at Smith v. Employment Div., 310 Ore. 376, 799 P.2d 148, 1990 Ore. LEXIS 326 (1990)


Smith v. Employment Div., 307 Ore. 68, 763 P.2d 146, 1988 Ore. LEXIS 564 (1988)

Disposition:  307 Ore. 68, 763 P. 2d 146, reversed.


peyote, religious, religion, free exercise, exemption, Church, religious belief, First Amendment, cases, generally applicable, compelling interest, religious practice, respondents', regulations, religious use, religious exemption, courts, controlled substance, free exercise of religion, governmental interest, burdening, sacramental, drug law, decisions, criminal law, worship, ceremonial, prohibits, alcohol, rights

Criminal Law & Procedure, Possession, Simple Possession, Elements, Controlled Substances, General Overview, Constitutional Law, Fundamental Freedoms, Freedom of Religion, Establishment of Religion, Bill of Rights, Free Exercise of Religion, State Application, Freedom of Speech, Free Press, Illegal Consensual Relations, Bigamy, Commercial Speech, Scope