Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith: Summary & Decision

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  • 0:02 Background on the Case
  • 1:03 Employment Division v. Smith I
  • 3:34 Employment Division v.…
  • 5:08 The Response to Smith II
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

Employment Division v. Smith is an important Supreme Court case which actually went to the Supreme Court twice. Each case focused on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In this lesson, we will explore the cases, their decisions and how they relate to current events.

Background on the Case

The Free Exercise Clause is part of the First Amendment. It protects your right to practice your religious beliefs free from interference by the government. There are many United States Supreme Court cases which indicate when the law can interfere with the right to free exercise of your religion. One of these is Employment Division v. Smith, which dealt with the freedom of Native American tribes to have religious practices involving peyote. The case was heard twice by the Supreme Court. It was first remanded or sent back down to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1988. It was returned to the United States Supreme Court for a second time in 1990.

The United States Supreme Court hears cases only when there is an important constitutional question to decide. Does the First Amendment give you the right to break the law while practicing your religion? The answer to this affects other ways people may practice their beliefs, such as marriage to multiple partners (polygamy).

Employment Division v. Smith I (1988)

In this case, known as Smith I, in 1988, two members of the Native American Church, Alfred Smith and Galen Black, were fired from their jobs as substance abuse counselors. They had consumed peyote, a hallucinogenic drug derived from cactus, as part of their religious worship services. After losing their jobs for misconduct, the two men applied for unemployment benefits in Oregon. The state denied unemployment benefits because as a matter of policy, the employer required its counselors who were in recovery to abstain from using drugs. The use of peyote was considered misconduct by the employer because the policy was violated.

Smith and Black argued that although they used a small amount of peyote, their use of the drug should have been protected under the Free Exercise Clause. In other words, they claimed they were allowed to consume peyote because it was an essential part of their religious worship. They argued there was no misconduct because it involved the free exercise of their religion. As a result, they claimed they should be entitled to unemployment benefits.

It is important to understand the issue is not whether the men should have been fired from their jobs for using peyote. Rather, the issue is if the state of Oregon must pay unemployment benefits to these men. The Oregon Supreme Court agreed that the men were entitled to unemployment benefits. As a result, the Employment Division of Oregon asked the United States Supreme Court to review the case.

Justice Stevens, writing for the majority of the United States Supreme Court, argued that: '(I)f 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.' This means that states can decide what an illegal drug is and can apply those laws to determine state benefits. Additionally, following the ruling from a previous Supreme Court case of Sherbert v. Verner, Justice Stevens wrote that people whose religious practices are the cause of their unemployment don't have a constitutional right to unemployment benefits.

The Supreme Court remanded, or returned the case, to the Oregon Supreme Court to clarify whether religious use of peyote is illegal under Oregon state law. Other states have chosen to make the religious use of peyote legal under their state laws. However, if its use was shown to be illegal in Oregon, then the state would have the right to deny unemployment benefits.

Employment Division v. Smith II (1990)

After remand from the United States Supreme Court, the Oregon Supreme Court reviewed the case again. The Oregon Supreme Court determined that Oregon state law prohibited the use of peyote, even during religious worship services. However, the court also determined that this prohibition was unconstitutional under the First Amendment, so the unemployment benefits were allowed.

The case was then brought back to the United States Supreme Court by the state of Oregon on behalf of the Employment Division because the Employment Division opposed paying unemployment benefits.

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