Sunday, March 25, 2012

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

Facts: Smith and Black were fired because they ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of their Native American Church. Their applications for employment compensation were denied by the State of Oregon under a state law disqualifying employees discharged for work-related “misconduct.” Holding that the denials violated the respondents’ First Amendment free exercise rights, the State CA reversed. The State SC affirmed but the Federal SC vacated judgment and remanded for a determination of whether peyote use is proscribed by the State’s controlled substance law (which makes it a felony to knowingly or intentionally possess the drug). On remand, the State SC held that the sacramental peyote use violated the state-law prohibition, but concluded that the prohibition itself was invalid under the Free Exercise Clause. 

Issue: Whether or not the state’s prohibition laws regarding peyote violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment 

Held: No. The Free Exercise Clause permits the State to prohibit sacramental peyote use and thus to deny employment benefits to persons discharged for such use. It would be in violation of the clause if the prohibition sought to ban the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts solely because of their religious motivation. The clause does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a law that incidentally forbids (or requires) the performance of an act that his religious belief requires (or forbids) if the law is not specifically directed to religious practice and is otherwise constitutional as applied to those who engage in the specified act for non-religious reasons

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