Employment Division v. Smith Case Brief

Facts of the case

Two counselors for a private drug rehabilitation organization ingested peyote — a powerful hallucinogen — as part of their religious ceremonies as members of the Native American Church. As a result of this conduct, the rehabilitation organization fired the counselors. The counselors filed a claim for unemployment compensation. The government denied them benefits because the reason for their dismissal was considered work-related misconduct.The state appellate court reversed the denial of benefits, finding that the denial violated their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The state supreme court affirmed the appellate court. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Oregon Supreme Court’s judgment against the disgruntled employees, and returned the case to the Oregon courts to determine whether or not sacramental use of illegal drugs violated Oregon’s state drug laws (485 U.S. 660 (1988)). On remand, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded that while Oregon drug law prohibited the consumption of illegal drugs for sacramental religious uses, this prohibition violated the Free Exercise Clause. The case returned to the U.S. Supreme Court in this new posture.

Why is the case important?

The Respondent, Smith (Respondent), sought unemployment compensation benefits after he was fired from his job for using peyote in a religious ceremony. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Respondent should be awarded unemployment compensation as his right to free exercise of religion was violated. The Petitioner, the Employment Division, Department of Human Resources (Petitioner), appeal the case.


Whether a statute, which prohibits the use of religiously inspired peyote and denies unemployment benefits to those who have been dismissed from their job because of this use of peyote violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).


Yes. The law is applied to all citizens equally regardless of religious belief. It was not designed to impede upon the religious practice of the Native American Church.


On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court held that (1) the free exercise of religion clause permits a state to include religiously inspired use of peyote within the reach of the state’s general criminal prohibition on use of that drug, where there is no contention that the state’s drug law represents an attempt to regulate religious beliefs, the communication of religious beliefs, or the raising of one’s children in those beliefs (2) the free exercise of religion clause thus permitted Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to persons dismissed from their jobs because of such religiously inspired use and (3) generally applicable, religion-neutral criminal laws that have the effect of burdening a particular religious practice need not be justified, under the free exercise of religion clause, by a compelling governmental interest.

  • Advocates: Craig J. Dorsay argued the cause for the respondents David B. Frohnmayer for petitioners
  • Petitioner: Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon
  • Respondent: Alfred Smith et al.
  • DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
  • Location: Oregon Department of Human Resources
Citation: 494 US 872 (1990)
Argued: Nov 6, 1989
Decided: Apr 17, 1990
Employment Division v. Smith Case Brief