Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith
497 U.S. 872 (1990)

  • Smith and Black were members of a Native American church that used hallucinogenic peyote for religious ceremonies.
    • Possession of peyote was a crime under Oregon State law.
  • Smith and Black were fired from their jobs (ironically at a drug rehab clinic) after it was discovered they were using peyote.
  • Smith and Black applied for unemployment benefits, but were denied because they had been fired for misconduct.
  • Smith and Black sued, claiming that the denial of benefits was an unconstitutional infringement of their 1st Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
    • Oregon’s law was neutral on its face, but Smith and Black argued that it had a discriminatory effect.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. Oregon appealed.
  • The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed. Oregon appealed.
    • The Oregon Supreme Court found that Oregon’s compelling government interest in preserving the integrity of their worker’s compensation fund did not outweigh the burden imposed on Smith and Black’s 1st Amendment rights.
  • The US Supreme reversed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that if a State could punish the possession of peyote as a crime without infringing a person’s right to free exercise of religion, it could also withhold unemployment benefits from those who possess peyote without violating the right to free exercise of religion.
    • The Court found that a State could not ban a practice specifically to interfere with a religion, but Oregon’s ban on the possession of peyote was not a law specifically aimed at a physical act engaged in for a religious reason. Rather, it is a law that applies to everyone who might possess peyote, for whatever reason.
      • Aka a “neutral law of general applicability.”
    • The Court found that as long as the government has a rational basis for the law, and the law isn’t specifically directed towards a religion, then it is constitutional.
      • There is no requirement for a compelling government interest.
  • Basically, this case says that the State cannot ban something because of religion (like banning golden calves because the bible says no worshiping of graven images), but that the State can ban something for totally non-religious reasons (like banning dangerous hallucinogens), even if the ban affects a religious practice, as long as they have a rational basis for doing so.
    • This is now known as the Smith Test.
    • This Smith Test represents a significant narrowing over the former Sher