Employment Division, Department Of Human Resources Of Oregon v. Smith

494 U.S. 872 (1990)


Oregon law made it criminal to knowingly and intentionally use any controlled substance. Smith and Black (respondents) were fired from their jobs because they ingested peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native American Church, of which both are members. They applied for unemployment compensation, but it was denied because they had been discharged for work-related 'misconduct.' The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed; a denial of benefits violated their free exercise rights under the First Amendment. On appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, that court reasoned that the criminality of use was irrelevant to resolution of their constitutional claim - since the purpose of the 'misconduct' provision under which respondents had been disqualified was not to enforce the State's criminal laws but to preserve the financial integrity of the compensation fund, and since that purpose was inadequate to justify the burden that disqualification imposed on respondents' religious practice, the court concluded that respondents were entitled to payment of unemployment benefits. Petitioner maintained that the illegality of respondents' peyote consumption was relevant to their constitutional claim. The Supreme Court agreed, concluding that 'if a State has prohibited through its criminal laws certain kinds of religiously motivated conduct without violating the First Amendment, it certainly follows that it may impose the lesser burden of denying unemployment compensation benefits to persons who engage in that conduct.' Accordingly, the judgment was vacated and remanded for further proceedings. On remand, the Oregon Court held that respondents' religiously inspired use of peyote fell within the prohibition of the Oregon statute, which 'makes no exception for the sacramental use' of the drug. It then considered whether that prohibition was valid under the Free Exercise Clause, and concluded that it was not. The court, therefore, reaffirmed its previous ruling that the State could not deny unemployment benefits to respondents for having engaged in that practice. Once again, the case went to the Supreme Court.