Deeply Held Convictions
What if you were told that you had to choose between your religious beliefs and getting help from the government? Does that seem fair? Can they do that? This was the decision facing the plaintiff in Sherbert v. Verner (1963).
Facts of the Case
Adell Sherbert operated a textile machine five days a week. Her boss informed her that she would be required to work a six-day week which included Saturday. As a Seventh-Day Adventist who believes that Saturday was a required day of rest for believers, she refused to work on Saturdays, and her boss fired her. She was unable to find other employment, and when she applied for unemployment benefits, she was denied. She took the case to trial, and she lost. The state appeals courts denied her appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court took her case.
The First Amendment contains two clauses that protect an individual's religious rights. One is the establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from establishing a religion. The other is the free exercise clause which says that Congress can't prohibit the free exercise of religion. Over the years, the Supreme Court has ruled that ''Congress'' means any form of government, federal or state cannot deny people their religious freedoms. However, those freedoms are not absolute as the government can infringe on those rights under certain circumstances. The question is, what are those circumstances?
Issue and Decision
In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Supreme Court was asked whether Sherbert's right to exercise her religious belief was greater than the government's need to fairly administer unemployment benefits. The Court held that that the denial of benefits violated Sherbert's free exercise of religion. The Court also held that if the state exempted her from working Saturday, the establishment clause was not violated.
Justice William Brennan wrote for the majority, and he said that that analysis must start from the position that ''the door of the Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any governmental regulation of religious beliefs''. However, this right is balanced against the state's interest in conducting the people's business.
In this case, the denial of benefits for those who refuse work is a vital aspect of South Carolina's unemployment law. It prevents any worker from refusing employment and still obtain benefits. This set up the showdown of rights that the Court had to settle. In doing so, the Court created what was to become the Sherbert Test. This test applied a two-phase analysis to help decide whether the infringement on religion was justified.
The first phase looked at the nature of the religious right and whether it was, in fact, being suppressed:
- Whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and
- Whether the government action is a substantial burden on the person's ability to act on that belief.
Justice Brennan wrote that Sherbert's belief was sincere because forcing her to work on Saturday would have violated an important tenant of her faith. For Brennan, this showed both that the belief was sincere and the burden was substantial. He wrote, ''The ruling forces her to choose between following the precepts of her religion and forfeiting benefits, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of her religion in order to accept work, on the other hand.'' Thus the Court ruled that both prongs of phase one of the Sherbert Test were met.
The second phase of the test looked at state interest in maintaining the action that violated a person's religious beliefs:
- It is acting in furtherance of a 'compelling state interest'; and
- It has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.
Brennan cited a previous case, Thomas v. Collins (1945), to assist in determining when a compelling state interest exists. Brennan reasoned that it wasn't just any rational relationship to a state interest that was required, but ''only the gravest abuses, endangering paramount interests, give occasion for permissible limitation.''
This is to avoid giving the government the right to infringe on a person's religious rights for just about any legitimate government necessity. Brennan wrote that in the Sherbert case, the government's interest fell short of grave abuse or danger to the state's interest.
Concerning the second prong, that the state's infringement was the least restrictive or burdensome to religion, the Court held that there was no other manner in which to accommodate Sherbert's religious needs, so the question was essentially moot. Therefore, in applying the Sherbert Test, the court found that Sherbert's religious rights would be violated by requiring her to choose between benefits and not working on Saturday.
By establishing the Sherbert Test, this case had a significant impact on how future free exercise cases were settled. The test applied to almost all cases that involved a government action and a religious freedom. This lasted for the next 27 years when the Supreme Court limited the Sherbert Test in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), holding that the test was too broad as applied to all laws which might ''incidentally'' infringe on religious freedom. For all other governmental laws and actions, the test still applies.
The First Amendment contains two clauses concerning religious freedom, the establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from establishing a religion, and the free exercise clause which says that Congress can't prohibit the free exercise of religion. in Sherbert v. Verner the Supreme Court held that the government can infringe on these rights if under certain legitimate government interests. The Court created the Sherbert Test to determine if an infringement on religion is warranted.
First, the court looked at whether the right involved was a sincere religious belief, and whether the state's action places a burden on that right. In the Sherbert case, the plaintiff was denied unemployment benefits because she refused to accept work on a Saturday, as she was Seventh-Day Adventist which held meetings on Saturday. The Court determined that being denied the ability to meet on her day of worship was a burden on her sincere religious belief.
Next, the Sherbert Test looked at whether the state action was a compelling state interest and if so, whether the action was the least restrictive means to accomplish the goal. The Court held that since the state unemployment requirement did not constitute a paramount state interest and that there were no other means to accommodate Sherbert's interest, then the unemployment rule constituted a violation of her First Amendment right.