Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (Peyote case)

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Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of
Oregon, et al. v. Smith et al ( Decided 1990)

1. Facts: Alfred Smith and Glen Black, were fired from their jobs because they violated a term of employment, namely ingesting the drug peyote. The state of Oregon considers the hallucinogen a controlled substance; this definition "controlled substance" has been classified the Federal Controlled Substances Act. When the respondents (both members of the Native American Church which uses peyote in a sacramental fashion) applied to the employment division of Oregon for unemployment compensation, they were denied for having lost employment through "misconduct". In this case, the Employment Division seeks to defend the verdict of the lower court that peyote can be criminally prohibited and because of this fact the state can deny unemployment benefits to those criminally convicted of using it.

2. Issue: The Free Exercise Clause of the first amendment, which has been made applicable to the states by incorporation into the fourteenth Amendment, provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". The Exercise of religion, they argue, is a term that implies not only a faith, but also ritual action defined by physical acts. While the respondents do not challenge the constitutionality of the law as it applies to the general population, they hold that the religious context of their consumption places them beyond the intent of the law. The respondents seek protection from these state laws because they contend that law applied without the understandings of the subtleties of minor groups, states can, "Prohibit the free exercise (of religion).

3. Holding: The Supreme Court found that the "Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment", made applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment, does not prevent the State of Oregon from including "religiously inspired peyote use" in its criminal prohibition of the drug. Because of this fact, the State can deny unemployment benefits to all users, including users of religious context.

4. Reasoning: Justice Scalia, delivered the opinion of the court
I. Textual Interpretation: The respondents are of the opinion that the State law directly infringes on their right to Free Exercise of Religion and thus should not apply to them. The court on the other hand, takes a less absolutist stance and states, "as a textual matter, we do not think the words must be given that meaning." The court renders this logic illegitimate claiming that it would be in the same spirit to view the collection of tax from a newspaper company as "abridging the freedom of the press". The intent of the law as the court reads it, was not designed as to be a burden to the respondents, but is merely the "incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision". The current understanding of "free exercise" jurisprudence is that an individual's belief does not excuse him from acting lawfully, as determined by valid state law. See precedent of Reynolds v. United States and the subsequent decisions of Braunfeld v. Brown, Gillette v. United States, United States v. Lee.

II.Hybrid Situation of the "free exercise clause": The only decisions in which the court has found that the First Amendment prevents a State from applying a general law, which restricts a religious right, have involved a situation in which there has been a conjunction between the more expansive Free Exercise Clause and another more concrete constitutionally protected right. The situations in which state law have been overturned involve the right to communicative activity or parental right in the context of the right to Free Exercise. This case involves no such secondary right.

III. Sherbert test, of Sherbert v. Verner, does not apply to this case: Claiming that a law is unjustified because the government does not have a compelling interest in the use of peyote by a minor sect is problematic because "to make an individual's obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State's interest is compelling- permitting him, by the virtue of his beliefs, 'to become a law unto itself,' Reynolds v. United States- contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense". The courts cannot determine the centrality of certain actions to faith to certain people; these things exist individually and arbitrarily. The Sherbert test produces the constitutional norms of equality and freedom of speech in the other fields, but what they produce in this peyote situation is "a private right to ignore generally applicable laws". Further, "the rule the respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic behavior of every kind".

IV.The Political Process should decide matters that exist within the negative bounds of the First Amendment: Religious exemptions to drug laws maybe permitted, or even viewed as good, but that does not mean they are a constitutionally required. Though minor groups may be at a loss in majoritarian decisions, it is a lesser evil than a system where the constitution makes personal conviction law and where even the most diffuse law would offend some conception of centrality.

5. Concurring and Dissenting Opinions.
I. Justice O'Connor: While concurring with the judgment, O'Connor does so for other reasons. O'Connor believes that the court should move away from the concept of "hybrid cases". Rather, the reason certain constitutional claims are rejected are that they must be "carefully weighed against competing interest". O'connor also believes, contrary to the Scalia opinion, that the "compelling interest test", should apply to religion.
Further, O'Connor argues that the law prohibiting peyote would in fact stand up the compelling interest test. Even though the consequences of one person using peyote use would not threaten the essential interest of the state, compromising the law to allow this exception would threaten the uniform application of the criminal prohibition. This is in itself "essential to the effectiveness of Oregon's stated interest in preventing any possession of peyote".
II. Justice Blackmun, dissenting: Blackmun takes issue with O'Connor's idea, expressed above, that exempting the respondents from the State criminal law will interfere with government interest. Blackmun argues that Oregon's interest in the case is symbolic, because it did not prosecute the offenders. The justice then cites Treasury Employees v. Von Raab that "symbolism, even symbolism for so worthy a cause as the abolition of drugs, cannot suffice to abrogate the constitutional rights of individuals". Blackmun also categorically separates peyote from "vast and violent" drug traffic.

6. Significance: The court has placed limits on the "Free Exercise Clause". Thusly, when considering generally applicable law, a precedent has been set in this decision that favors the consequentialists' concern for the uniformity of law and integrity of sate legislation, rather than an absolutist interpretation.

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