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Law School Case Brief

Emp't Div. v. Smith - 494 U.S. 872, 110 S. Ct. 1595 (1990)


The Free Exercise Clause of U.S. Const. amend. I, which has been made applicable to the states by incorporation into the U.S. Const. amend. XIV, provides that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. U.S. Const. amend. I. The free exercise of religion means, first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires. Thus, the First Amendment obviously excludes all governmental regulation of religious beliefs as such. The government may not compel affirmation of religious belief, punish the expression of religious doctrines it believes to be false, impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status, or lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or dogma. 


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 petitioner, the Employment Division of the Department of Human Resources of Oregon, pursuant to a state law that disqualified employees discharged for work-related "misconduct." Holding that the denials violated respondents' First Amendment free exercise rights, a state appellate court reversed. The state supreme court affirmed.


Was the state law disqualifying employees from unemployment compensation on grounds of work-related misconduct valid?




The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. It held that the Free Exercise Clause was inapplicable because the state law was not aimed at promoting or restricting religious beliefs. Because the employees' peyote use was prohibited and the prohibition was constitutional, Oregon could deny unemployment compensation. Moreover, the Court ruled that religion-neutral criminal laws that had the effect of burdening a particular religious practice need not be justified, under the free exercise of religion clause, by a compelling governmental interest.

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