485 U.S. 660 (1988), 86-946, Employment Division, Department of Human Resources

Docket Nº:No. 86-946
Citation:485 U.S. 660, 108 S.Ct. 1444, 99 L.Ed.2d 753, 56 U.S.L.W. 4357
Party Name:Employment Division, Department of Human Resources
Case Date:April 27, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 660

485 U.S. 660 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 1444, 99 L.Ed.2d 753, 56 U.S.L.W. 4357

Employment Division, Department of Human Resources

No. 86-946

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1988

of the State of Oregon v. Smith

Argued December 8, 1987

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF OREGON

Syllabus

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

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religion,'" see Hobbie, 480 U.S. at 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. 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. 674. KENNEDY, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the cases.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents are drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation counselors who were discharged after they ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, during a religious ceremony of the Native American Church. Both applied for and were denied unemployment compensation by petitioner Employment Division. The Oregon Supreme Court held that this denial, although

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proper as a matter of Oregon law, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution.1 In reaching that conclusion, the state court attached no significance to the fact that the possession of peyote is a felony under Oregon law punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years.2 Because we are persuaded that the alleged illegality of respondents' conduct is relevant to the constitutional analysis, we granted certiorari, 480 U.S. 916 (1987), and now vacate the judgments and remand for further proceedings.

I

Respondents Alfred Smith and Galen Black were employed by the Douglas County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT), a nonprofit corporation that provides treatment for alcohol and drug abusers. Both were qualified to be counselors, in part, because they had former drug and alcohol dependencies. As a matter of policy, ADAPT required its recovering counselors to abstain from the use of alcohol and illegal drugs.3 ADAPT terminated

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respondents' employment because they violated that policy. As to each of them, the violation consisted of a single act of ingesting a small quantity of peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native American Church. It is undisputed that respondents are members of that church, that their religious beliefs are sincere, and that those beliefs motivated the "misconduct" that led to their discharge.

Both respondents applied for unemployment compensation. Petitioner Employment Division considered the applications in a series of administrative hearings and appeals,4 at the conclusion of which it determined that the applications should be [108 S.Ct. 1447] denied.5 Petitioner considered and rejected respondents' constitutional claim and concluded that they were

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ineligible for benefits because they had been discharged for work-related "misconduct."6

The Oregon Court of Appeals, considering the constitutional issue en banc, reversed the Board's decisions.7 The Oregon Supreme Court granted the State's petitions for review in both cases to consider whether the denial of benefits violated the Oregon Constitution8 or the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The cases were argued together, but the court issued separate opinions, fully analyzing the constitutional issues only in Smith.

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In accordance with its usual practice,9 the court first addressed the Oregon constitutional issue. The court concluded:

Under the Oregon Constitution's freedom of religion provisions, claimant has not shown that his right to worship according to the dictates of his conscience has been infringed upon by the denial of [108 S.Ct. 1448] unemployment benefits. We do not imply that a governmental rule or policy disqualifying a person from employment or from public services or benefits by reason of conduct that rests on a religious belief or a religious practice could not impinge on the religious freedom guaranteed by Article I, sections 2 and 3. Nor do we revive a distinction between constitutional "rights" and "privileges." But here it was not the government that disqualified claimant from his job for ingesting peyote. And the rule denying unemployment benefits to one who loses his job for what an employer permissibly considers misconduct, conduct incompatible with doing the job, is itself a neutral rule, as we have said. As long as disqualification by reason of the religiously based conduct is peculiar to the particular employment and most other jobs remain open to the worker, we do not believe that the state is denying the worker a vital necessity in applying the "misconduct" exception of the unemployment compensation law.

301 Ore. 209, 216, 721 P.2d 445, 448-449 (1986).

Turning to the federal issue, the court reasoned that our decisions in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), and

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Thomas v. Review Bd., Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), required it to hold that the denial of unemployment benefits significantly burdened respondent's religious freedom. The court also concluded that the State's interest in denying benefits was not greater in this case than in Sherbert or Thomas. This conclusion rested on the premise that the Board had erroneously relied on the State's interest in proscribing the use of dangerous drugs, rather than just its interest in the financial integrity of the compensation fund. Whether the state court believed that it was constrained by Sherbert and Thomas to disregard the State's law enforcement interest, or did so because it believed petitioner to have conceded that the legality of respondent's conduct was not in issue, is not entirely clear. The relevant paragraph in the court's opinion reads as follows:

Nor is the state's interest in this case a more "overriding" or "compelling" interest than in Sherbert and Thomas. The Board found that the state's interest in proscribing the use of dangerous drugs was the compelling interest that justified denying the claimant unemployment benefits. However, the legality of ingesting peyote does not affect our analysis of the state's interest. The state's interest in denying unemployment benefits to a claimant discharged for religiously motivated misconduct must be found in the unemployment compensation statutes, not in the criminal statutes proscribing the use of peyote. The Employment Division concedes that "the commission of an illegal act is not, in and of itself, grounds for disqualification from unemployment benefits." ORS 657.176(3) permits disqualification only if a claimant commits a felony in connection with work. . . . [T]he legality of [claimant's] ingestion of peyote has little direct bearing on this case.

301 Ore. at 218-219, 721 P.2d at 450.

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The court noted that, although the possession of peyote is a crime in Oregon, such possession is lawful in many jurisdictions.10

[108 S.Ct. 1449] In its opinion in...

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