Employment Div. v. Smith
Annotate this Case
485 U.S. 660 (1988)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Employment Div. v. Smith, 485 U.S. 660 (1988)
Employment Division, Department of Human Resources
of the State of Oregon v. Smith
Argued December 8, 1987
Decided April 27, 1988*
485 U.S. 660
On the basis of their employer's policy prohibiting its employees from using illegal nonprescription drugs, respondent drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation counselors were discharged for ingesting a small quantity of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for sacramental purposes during a religious ceremony of the Native American Church. It is undisputed that respondents are members of that church and that their religious beliefs are sincere. Respondents applied for and were denied unemployment compensation by petitioner Employment Division under an Oregon statute disqualifying employees discharged for work-connected misconduct. The State Court of Appeals reversed. The State Supreme Court affirmed, reasoning that, although the benefits denials were proper under Oregon law, Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398, and Thomas v. Review Bd., Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707, required the court to hold that the denials significantly burdened respondents' religious freedom in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution. In reaching that conclusion, the court attached no significance to the fact that peyote possession is a felony in Oregon, declaring that the legality of ingesting peyote did not affect its analysis of the State's interest in denying benefits, which must be found in the unemployment compensation, rather than the criminal, statutes.
Held: These cases must be remanded to the State Supreme Court for a definitive ruling as to whether the religious use of peyote is legal in Oregon, since that question is relevant to the federal constitutional analysis. Although Sherbert, Thomas, and Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n, 480 U. S. 136, prohibited the denial of unemployment compensation to employees required to choose between fidelity to their religious beliefs and cessation of work, those cases all involved employee conduct that was perfectly legal. Their results might well have been different had the employees been discharged for criminal conduct, since the First Amendment protects "legitimate claims to the free exercise of
religion,'" see Hobbie, 480 U.S. at 480 U. S. 142, not conduct that a State has validly proscribed. If Oregon does prohibit the religious use of peyote, and if that prohibition is consistent with the Federal Constitution (a question that is not decided here), there is no federal right to engage in that conduct in Oregon, and the State is free to withhold unemployment compensation from respondents. If, on the other hand, Oregon is among those States that exempt the religious use of peyote from statutory controlled substances prohibitions, respondents' conduct may well be entitled to constitutional protection. Pp. 485 U. S. 669-674.
No. 86-946, 301 Ore. 209, 721 P.2d 445, and No. 86-947, 301 Ore. 451, 721 P.2d 451, vacated and remanded.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 485 U. S. 674. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.