Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division, No. 79-952

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBURGER
Citation67 L.Ed.2d 624,450 U.S. 707,101 S.Ct. 1425
Docket NumberNo. 79-952
Decision Date06 April 1981
PartiesEddie C. THOMAS, Petitioner, v. REVIEW BOARD OF the INDIANA EMPLOYMENT SECURITY DIVISION et al

450 U.S. 707
101 S.Ct. 1425
67 L.Ed.2d 624
Eddie C. THOMAS, Petitioner,

v.

REVIEW BOARD OF the INDIANA EMPLOYMENT SECURITY DIVISION et al.

No. 79-952.
Argued Oct. 7, 1980.
Decided April 6, 1981.
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 administrative 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, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965. Pp. 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 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. 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 prescribed 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 substantial. Pp. 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. 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. 719-720.

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

Page 709

Blanca Bianchi de la Torre, Gary, Ind., for petitioner.

William E. Daily, Indianapolis, Ind., for respondents.

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, 100 S.Ct. 1012, 62 L.Ed.2d 751 (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.1

Page 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.2 At an administrative hearing where he was

Page 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-Knox 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.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.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 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." 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.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 § 22-4-15-1, as applied, improperly burdened Thomas' right to the free exercise of his religion. Accordingly, it ordered the Board to extend benefits to Thomas. Thomas v. Review Board, Ind.App., 65 Ind.Dec. 238, 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. Ind., 391...

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  • Carson v. Makin, No. 19-1746
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
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    ...v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963), and Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division, 450 U.S. 707, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981), the government's denial of benefits solely "because of conduct mandated by religious belief" ran afoul of t......
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    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 17, 2021
    ...or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection." Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707, 714 (1981). Our task is to decide whether the burden the City has placed on the religious exercise of CSS is constitutionally permissible. Smith h......
  • Mahoney v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 09-105 (ESH).
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    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 30, 2009
    ...puts "`substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs....'" Id. (quoting Thomas v. Review Bd., 450 U.S. 707, 718, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981)). By contrast, "[a]n inconsequential or de minimis burden on religious practice does not rise to thi......
  • Davis v. Powell, Civil No. 10cv1891–CAB (RBB).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • October 4, 2012
    ...to violate his beliefs.’ ” Warsoldier, 418 F.3d at 995 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas v. Review Bd. of the Ind. Emp't Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 717–18, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981)). Recently, the Ninth Circuit stated “that a ‘substantial burden is imposed ... when individ......
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1467 cases
  • Carson v. Makin, No. 19-1746
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • October 29, 2020
    ...v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963), and Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division, 450 U.S. 707, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981), the government's denial of benefits solely "because of conduct mandated by religious belief" ran afoul of t......
  • Fulton v. City of Phila., No. 19-123
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 17, 2021
    ...or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection." Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707, 714 (1981). Our task is to decide whether the burden the City has placed on the religious exercise of CSS is constitutionally permissible. Smith h......
  • Mahoney v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 09-105 (ESH).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 30, 2009
    ...puts "`substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs....'" Id. (quoting Thomas v. Review Bd., 450 U.S. 707, 718, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981)). By contrast, "[a]n inconsequential or de minimis burden on religious practice does not rise to thi......
  • Davis v. Powell, Civil No. 10cv1891–CAB (RBB).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of California)
    • October 4, 2012
    ...to violate his beliefs.’ ” Warsoldier, 418 F.3d at 995 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas v. Review Bd. of the Ind. Emp't Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 717–18, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981)). Recently, the Ninth Circuit stated “that a ‘substantial burden is imposed ... when individ......
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    • UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy Vol. 39 Nbr. 2, September 2021
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