Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, No. 88-1213 Supreme Court of The United States 494 U.S. 872; 110 S. Ct. 1595; 1990 U.S.

April 17, 1990, Decided

CORE TERMS: religious, peyote, religion, exemption, First Amendment, unemployment, religiously, regulation, centrality, sacramental, worship, marijuana, church, counselors, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW, forbid, burdening, Federal Constitution's First Amendment, objector, ceremony, ritual, compulsory, inspired, applicability, abstention, adherent, unduly, joined, harmful, misconduct

SUMMARY SENTENCE: Oregon's prohibition of use of peyote in religious ceremony held not to violate free exercise of religion clause of Federal Constitution's First Amendment.


Two drug rehabilitation counselors, both of whom were members of the Native American Church, were fired from their jobs with a private corporation in Oregon because they had ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Church. The counselors applied to the Employment Division of Oregon's Department of Human Resources for unemployment compensation, but the department's Employment Appeals Board ultimately denied their applications on the ground that the counselors had been discharged for misconduct connected with work.

During a second certiorari, the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Oregon Supreme court which stated that the defendants could not be denied unemployment benefits.

In an opinion by Scalia, J., joined by Rehnquist, Ch. J., and White, Stevens, and Kennedy, JJ., the court held:

  1. Where a criminal statute proscribes drug use for its own sake and does not attempt to regulate religious beliefs, the communication of religious beliefs, or the raising of one's children in those beliefs, the free exercise of religion clause permits a state to include religiously inspired use of peyote within the reach of the state's general criminal prohibition on use of that drug;

  2. the free exercise of religion clause thus does not preclude Oregon from denying unemployment benefits to persons dismissed from their jobs because they used the drug whether or not such use was religiously inspired; and

  3. a compelling government interest need not exist to justify a generally applicable, religion-neutral criminal laws which have the effect of burdening a particular religious practice.

O'Connor, J., concurred in the judgment and, in an opinion joined in part (as to points 1-3 below) by Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun, JJ., expressed the view that:

  1. the First Amendment requires at least a case-by-case determination whether such a burden on specific individuals is constitutionally significant

  2. The First Amendment requires at least a case-by-case determination of whether the particular criminal interest asserted by the government is compelling, and

  3. In this case the compelling interest would require:

    1. that Oregon had a compelling interest in regulating peyote use by its citizens,
    2. that a selective exemption from the prohibition for first amendment reason would unduly interfere with this interest, and
    3. that the free exercise of religion clause did not require Oregon to accommodate the counselors' conduct.

Blackmun, J., joined by Brennan and Marshall, JJ., dissented, and expressed the view that:

  1. Only a compelling interest of a state in regulating a matter may justify a state statute that burdens the free exercise of religion as well as the states decision to reuse religious exemptions;

  2. Oregon's interest in refusing to make an exception for the religious use of peyote was not sufficiently compelling to outweigh the counselors' right to the free exercise of their religion, and therefore

  3. Oregon could not, consistent with the free exercise of Religion Clause, deny the counselors unemployment benefits.

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