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Sherbert v. Verner

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Significance: The Supreme Court required that government apply the “compelling state interest” standard to justify any policy that placed an indirect burden on a religious practice.


Adell Sherbert, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was fired from her job in a textile mill because she refused to work on Saturdays, her Sabbath. The unemployment office of South Carolina turned down her claims for benefits because state policy did not accept religious conviction as a sufficient justification for not working. The state court, ruling in favor of the state, referred to Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), which had allowed Sunday-closing laws that indirectly disadvantaged Jewish merchants. The Supreme Court, by a 7-2 margin, found that South Carolina's unemployment policy violated the religious exercise clause of the First Amendment. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote that when a state's policy limited a fundamental right, the state must justify that burden with a compelling rationale. In addition, the state was required to consider alternative means for achieving its objectives and to adopt the policy that was the least restrictive of fundamental rights. In the Braunfeld case, the state had a compelling reason to provide a uniform day of rest, but South Carolina had no similar basis for refusing to modify its policy for unemployment compensation. Sherbert established a strong presumption in favor of protecting unconventional religious practices. The scope of this protection was limited in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith (1990).