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

PETITIONER: Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of the State of Oregon et al.
RESPONDENT: Alfred Smith
LOCATION: Drug rehabilitation clinic in Douglas County

DOCKET NO.: 86-946
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Oregon Supreme Court

CITATION: 485 US 660 (1988)
ARGUED: Dec 08, 1987
DECIDED: Apr 27, 1988

ADVOCATES:
Suanne Lovendahl - argued the cause for the respondents
William F. Gary - Deputy Attorney General of Oregon, argued the cause for petitioners

Facts of the case

Alfred Smith and Galen Black worked at a private drug rehabilitation clinic. The clinic fired them because they used a hallucinogenic drug called peyote for religious purposes while worshipping at their Native American Church. The Oregon Employment Division denied them unemployment compensation because it deemed they were fired for work-related "misconduct." The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that this violated their religious free exercise rights provided by the First Amendment. The Oregon Supreme Court reversed.

Question

Can a state deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using prohibited drugs for religious purposes?

Media for Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of the State of Oregon v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 08, 1987 in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of the State of Oregon v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 27, 1988 in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of the State of Oregon v. Smith

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the court in Nos. 86-946, 86-947, Employment Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon versus Smith and another case will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

These two cases raised constitutional question that we have decided not to decide without further guidance from the Oregon Supreme Court.

They come to us on certiorari to review a judgment of that court granting unemployment compensation benefits to the two respondents.

They are members of the native American Church ,that church occasionally holds ceremonies that which peyote, a hallucinogenic drug of the mescaline family is ingested as a sacrament.

Respondents were discharged from their jobs as drug and alcohol abuse counselors after they ingested a small amount of peyote during such a religious ceremony.

Petitioner ruled that respondents were inillegible for unemployment compensation, but the Oregon Supreme Court disagreed, holding that under the precedents of this Court the denial of benefits violated respondents' First Amendment rights since they have been discharged for engaging in religiously motivated conduct.

In so holding the State Court attached no significance to whether respondents' act violated Oregon Law.

Even though the precedents it relied on involved only clearly lawful religious conduct.

We find that whether respondents' conduct was lawful is relevant to the constitutional analysis, since the First Amendment does not protect the right to engage in unlawful conduct even it is religiously motivated.

Because the record before us does not clearly reveal whether respondents' conduct was prohibited under Oregon Law, we remand these cases to the Oregon Supreme Court in order that that court may analyze the constitutional questions raised in light of its determination of whether respondents' conduct was in violation of state law.

Justice Brennan has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Marshall and Justice Blackmun have joined.

Justice Kennedy did not participate in the consideration of decision of the case.