Sherbert worked in a textile
mill in South Carolina until her employer switched to a 6-day work week.
Sherbert claimed that her
religious beliefs forbid working on Saturdays.
Sherbert applied for
unemployment benefits, but was denied because she left her job willingly
(unemployment compensation is only for those who've been fired.)
Sherbert sued, claiming that
the denial of benefits was an unconstitutional infringement of her 1st
Amendment right to free exercise
The Trial Court found for the
Employment Security Commission (ESC). Sherbert appealed.
The South Carolina Supreme
Court affirmed. Sherbert appealed.
The US Supreme Court reversed.
The US Supreme Court
developed what is now know as the Sherbert Test, which says:
First, the court must
The person has a claim
involving a sincere religious belief, and
Whether the government
action is a substantial burden of the person's ability to act on that
If those two elements are
established, then the government must show that:
It is acting in
furtherance of a compelling government interest, and
It is using the least
restrictive means to pursue that
In this case, the Court
found that the compelling government interest was not compelling enough to justify the
infringement on Sherbert's 1st Amendment rights.
In addition, the Court found
that the law wasn't the least restrictive thing the government could do because it did not contain an
exception for people with religious problems with the law.
The Sherbert Test is in many ways similar to the general strict
scrutiny test that is used in deciding
many constitutional issues.
The US Supreme Court later
narrowed the Sherbert Test in Employment
Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (497
U.S. 872 (1990)), where they found that free exercise exemptions were not
permitted from generally applicable laws.
To be honest, the courts
rarely applied the Sherbert Test
to overturn laws anyway. The only two areas they seemed to use the Sherbert
Test for were denial of unemployment
benefits, and compulsory schooling.
See Thomas v. Review
Board (450 U.S. 707 (1981)), and Wisconsin
v. Yoder (406 U.S. 205 (1972)).