Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. Div.
450 U.S. 707 (1981)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981)

Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana

Employment Security Division

No. 79-952

Argued October 7, 1980

Decided April 6, 1981

450 U.S. 707

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIANA

Syllabus

Petitioner, a Jehovah's Witness, was initially hired to work in his employer's roll foundry, which fabricated sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses, but when the foundry was closed, he was transferred to a department that fabricated turrets for military tanks. Since all of the employer's remaining departments to which transfer might have been sought were engaged directly in the production of weapons, petitioner asked to be laid off. When that request was denied, he quit, asserting that his religious beliefs prevented him from participating in the production of weapons. He applied for unemployment compensation benefits under the Indiana Employment Security Act, and testified at an administrntive hearing that he believed that contributing to the production of arms violated his religion, although he could, in good conscience, engage indirectly in the production of materials that might be used ultimately to fabricate arms. The hearing referee found that petitioner had terminated his employment because of his religious convictions, but held that petitioner was not entitled to benefits because his voluntary termination was not based upon a "good cause [arising] in connection with [his] work," as required by the Indiana statute. Respondent Review Board affirmed, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Indiana statute, as applied, improperly burdened petitioner's right to the free exercise of his religion. The Indiana Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals' decision and denied petitioner benefits, holding that he had quit voluntarily for personal reasons, his belief being more "personal philosophical choice" than religious belief. The court also concluded that, in any event, a termination motivated by religion is not for "good cause" objectively related to the work, as required by the Indiana statute, and that denying benefits created only an indirect burden on petitioner's free exercise right, which burden was justified by legitimate state interests.

Held: The State's denial of unemployment compensation benefits to petitioner violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion under Sherbert v. Verner,374 U. S. 398. Pp. 450 U. S. 713-720.

(a) The Indiana Supreme Court improperly relied on the facts that petitioner was "struggling" with his beliefs and that he was not able

Page 450 U. S. 708

to "articulate" his belief precisely. Courts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs on such grounds. The Indiana court also erred in apparently giving significant weight to the fact that another Jehovah's Witness with whom petitioner consulted had no scruples about working on tank turrets. The guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect. The narrow function of a reviewing court in this context is to determine whether there was an appropriate finding that petitioner terminated his work because such work was forbidden by his religion. The record shows that petitioner terminated his employment for religious reasons. Pp. 450 U. S. 713-716.

(b) A person may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program. It is true that the Indiana law does not compel a violation of conscience, but where the state conditions receipt of an important benefit upon conduct proscribed by a religious faith, or where it denies such a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs, a burden upon religion exists. While the compulsion may be indirect, the infringement upon free exercise is nonetheless substnntial. Pp. 450 U. S. 716-718.

(c) The state may justify an inroad on religious liberty by showing that it is the least restrictive means of achieving some compelling state interest. However, when the inquiry is properly narrowed to focus only on the threat to state interests, neither of the purposes urged to sustain the disqualifying provision of the Indiana statute -- to avoid the widespread unemployment and consequent burden on the fund resulting if people were permitted to leave jobs for "personal" reasons and to avoid a detailed probing by employers into job applicants' religious beliefs -- is sufficiently compelling to justify the burden upon petitioner's religious liberty. Pp. 450 U. S. 718-719.

(d) Payment of benefits to petitioner would not involve the State in fostering a religious faith in violation of the Establishment Clause. The extension of benefits reflects no more than the governmental obligation of neutrality, and does not represent that involvement of religious with secular institutions which it is the object of the Establishment Clause to forestall. Pp. 450 U. S. 719-720.

271 Ind. ___, 391 N. E. 2d 1127, reversed.

BURGER, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II, and III of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J.,

Page 450 U. S. 709

filed a statement concurring in part and concurring in the result, post, p. 450 U. S. 720. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 720.

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to consider whether the State's denial of unemployment compensation benefits to the petitioner, a Jehovah's Witness who terminated his job because his religious beliefs forbade participation in the production of armaments, constituted a violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. 444 U.S. 1070 (1980).

I

Thomas terminated his employment in the Blaw-Knox Foundry & Machinery Co. when he was transferred from the roll foundry to a department that produced turrets for military tanks. He claimed his religious beliefs prevented him from participating in the production of war materials. The respondent Review Board denied him unemployment compensation benefits by applying disqualifying provisions of the Indiana Employment Security Act. [Footnote 1]

Page 450 U. S. 710

Thomas, a Jehovah's Witness, was hired initially to work in the roll foundry at Blaw-Knox. The function of that department was to fabricate sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses. On his application form, he listed his membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses, and noted that his hobbies were Bible study and Bible reading. However he placed no conditions on his employment, and he did not describe his religious tenets in any detail on the form.

Approximately a year later, the roll foundry closed, and Blaw-Knox transferred Thomas to a department that fabricated turrets for military tanks. On his first day at this new job, Thomas realized that the work he was doing was weapons related. He checked the bulletin board where in-plant openings were listed, and discovered that all of the remaining departments at Blaw-Knox were engaged directly in the production of weapons. Since no transfer to another department would resolve his problem, he asked for a layoff. When that request was denied, he quit, asserting that he could not work on weapons without violating the principles of his religion. The record does not show that he was offered any nonweapons work by his employer, or that any such work was available.

Upon leaving Blaw-Knox, Thomas applied for unemployment compensation benefits under the Indiana Employment Security Act. [Footnote 2] At an administrative hearing where he was

Page 450 U. S. 711

not represented by counsel, he testified that he believed that contributing to the production of arms violated his religion. He said that, when he realized that his work on the tank turret line involved producing weapons for war, he consulted another Blaw-Knox employee -- a friend and fellow Jehovah's Witness. The friend advised him that working on weapons parts at Blaw-Know was not "unscriptural." Thomas was not able to "rest with" this view, however. He concluded that his friend's view was based upon a less strict reading of Witnesses' principles than his own.

When asked at the hearing to explain what kind of work his religious convictions would permit, Thomas said that he would have no difficulty doing the type of work that he had done at the roll foundry. He testified that he could, in good conscience, engage indirectly in the production of materials that might be used ultimately to fabricate arms -- for example, as an employee of a raw material supplier or of a roll foundry. [Footnote 3]

The hearing referee found that Thomas' religious beliefs specifically precluded him from producing or directly aiding in the manufacture of items used in warfare. [Footnote 4] He also found that Thomas had terminated his employment because of these religious convictions. The referee reported:

"Claimant continually searched for a transfer to another department which would not be so armament related;

Page 450 U. S. 712

however, this did not materialize, and prior to the date of his leaving, claimant requested a layoff, which was denied; and on November 6, 1975, claimant did quit due to his religious convictions. [Footnote 5]"

The referee concluded nonetheless that Thomas' termination was not based upon a "good cause [arising] in connection with [his] work," as required by the Indiana unemployment compensation statute. Accordingly, he was held not entitled to benefits. The Review Board adopted the referee's findings and conclusions, and affirmed the denial of benefits. [Footnote 6]

The Indiana Court of Appeals, accepting the finding that Thomas terminated his employment "due to his religious convictions," reversed the decision of the Review Board, and held that § 2215-1, as applied, improperly burdened Thomas' right to the free exercise of his religion. Accordingly, it ordered the Board to extend benefits to Thomas. 178 Ind.App. , 381 N.E.2d 888 (1978).

The Supreme Court of Indiana, dividing 3-2, vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, and denied Thomas benefits. 271 Ind. ___, 391 N. E2d 1127 (1979). With reference to the Indiana unemployment compensation statute, the court said:

"It is not intended to facilitate changing employment or to provide relief for those who quit work voluntarily for personal reasons. Voluntary unemployment is not compensable under the purpose of the Act, which is to provide benefits for persons unemployed through no fault of their own."

"Good cause which justifies voluntary termination must

Page 450 U. S. 713

be job-related and objective in character."

Id. at 391 N.E.2d at 1129 (footnotes omitted). The court held that Thomas had quit voluntarily ,for personal reasons, and therefore did not qualify for benefits. Id. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1130.

In discussing the petitioner's free exercise claim, the court stated: "A personal philosophical choice, rather than a religious choice, does not rise to the level of a first amendment claim." Id. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1131. The court found the basis and the precise nature of Thomas' belief unclear -- but it concluded that the belief was more "personal philosophical choice" than religious belief. Nonetheless, it held that, even assuming that Thomas quit for religious reasons, he would not be entitled to benefits: under Indiana law, a termination motivated by religion is not for "good cause" objectively related to the work.

The Indiana court concluded that denying Thomas benefits would create only an indirect burden on his free exercise right, and that the burden was justified by the legitimate state interest in preserving the integrity of the insurance fund and maintaining a stable workforce by encouraging workers not to leave their jobs for personal reasons.

Finally, the court held that awarding unemployment compensation benefits to a person who terminates employment voluntarily for religious reasons, while denying such benefits to persons who terminate for other personal but nonreligious reasons, would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The judgment under review must be examined in light of our prior decisions, particularly Sherbert v. Verner,374 U. S. 398 (1963).

II

Only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause, which, by its terms, gives special protection to the exercise of religion. Sherbert v. Verner, supra; 406 U. S. S. 714

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.