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  Supreme Court Decision

U.S. Supreme Court Report

Employment Division
Department of Human Resources of Oregon, et al., Petitioners
Alfred L. Smith et al.
[No.88-1213] 494 US 872,108 L Ed 2nd 876,110 S Ct 1595
Argued November 6, 1989. Decided April 17, 1990.

Decision: 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. The Oregon Court of Appeals, reversing the board's decisions, (1) held that the denial of benefits to persons who were discharged for engaging in a religious act constituted an unjustified burden on the right of free exercise of religion, and (2) remanded the cases to the board for further findings as to the religious nature of the counselors' acts (75 Or App 764, 707 P2d 1274, 709 P2d 246). The Supreme Court of Oregon, holding that such further findings were unnecessary and that the counselors were entitled to payment of unemployment benefits, affirmed both judgments as modified (301 Or 209, 221, 721 P2d 445, 451). On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court (1) noted that the Oregon Supreme Court had not decided whether the counselors' sacramental use of peyote was in fact proscribed by Oregon's controlled substance law, and that this issue was a matter of dispute between the parties, (2) determined that it would not be appropriate, given this uncertainty, for the United States Supreme Court to decide whether the practice was protected by the Federal Constitution, and accordingly (3) vacated the Oregon Supreme Court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings (485 US 660, 99 L Ed 2nd 753, 108 S Ct 1444). On remand, the Oregon Supreme Court held that (1) the Oregon statute made no exception for the sacramental use of peyote, (2) the counselors' use of peyote thus fell within the prohibition of the statute, (3) the prohibition of the practice at issue was not valid under the free exercise clause of the Federal Constitution's First Amendment, and (4) the counselors could not be denied unemployment benefits for having engaged in that practice (307 Or 68, 763 P2d 146).

On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court reversed. In an opinion by Scalia, J., joined by Rehnquist, Ch. J., and White, Stevens and Kennedy, JJ., it was held that (1) 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, where there is no contention that the state's drug law represents an attempt to regulate religious beliefs, the communication of religious beliefs, or the raising of one's children in those beliefs; (2) the free exercise of religion clause thus permitted Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to persons dismissed from their jobs because of such religiously inspired use; and (3) generally applicable, religion-neutral criminal laws that have the effect of burdening a particular religious practice need not be justified, under the free exercise of religion clause, by a compelling governmental interest.

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 question under the free exercise of religion clause was properly presented in the United States Supreme Court, (2) an individual's free exercise of religion is burdened by neutral laws of general applicability that make criminal the individual's religiously motivated conduct, (3) the First Amendment requires at least a case-by-case determination whether such a burden on specific individuals is constitutionally significant and whether the particular criminal interest asserted by the government is compelling, and (4) under such a test, (a) Oregon had a compelling interest in regulating peyote use by its citizens, (b) a selective exemption from the prohibition would unduly interfere with this interest, and therefore (c) the free exercise of religion clause did not require Oregon to accommodate the counselors conduct.

Blackmun, J., joined by Brennan and Marshall, JJ., dissenting, expressed the view that (1 ) a state statute that burdens the free exercise of religion may stand only if the law in general, and the state's refusal to allow a religious exemption in particular, are justified by a compelling interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means, (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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