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Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith

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Significance: Narrowly interpreting the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that the states were not required to make a religious exception for the use of illegal drugs.


Alfred Smith and another Native American were fired from their jobs after their employer discovered that they occasionally smoked the hallucinogenic drug peyote as a part of tribal religious ceremonies. The use of peyote was illegal in Oregon, and the state's policy was to deny unemployment benefits to anyone discharged for work-related misconduct. The two men argued that the denial of benefits unconstitutionally infringed on their right to religious freedom. Their lawyers referred to Sherbert v. Verner (1963), which had required states to justify any indirect restraints on religion according to the “compelling state interest” standard. In the Smith case, however, the Supreme Court voted six to three to uphold Oregon's policy. Justice Antonin Scalia argued that states had no obligation to make exceptions for laws that were reasonable, secular in intent, and generally applicable to all persons. Such matters were left up to legislative discretion, even if an unfortunate consequence was an “incidental burden” on unconventional religious practices. Although Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined the majority in upholding Oregon's policy, she joined the three dissenters in wanting to continue Sherbert's standards of strict scrutiny. Religious leaders and civil libertarians were outraged at the Smith decision. In the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Congress required courts to return to the standards of Sherbert, but the Court overturned this requirement in Boerne v. Flores (1997).