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
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
Smith and Black sued, claiming
that the denial of benefits was an unconstitutional infringement of their 1st
Amendment right to free exercise
Oregon's law was neutral on
its face, but Smith and Black argued that it had a discriminatory effect.
The Appellate Court reversed.
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
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
This Smith Test represents a significant narrowing over the
former Sherbert Test established
in Sherbert v. Verner (374 U.S. 398 (1963)).
The Sherbert Test was very similar to strict scrutiny.
Congress attempted to revive
the Sherbert Test by passing the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act (42 U.S.C. §§2000bb) but the US Supreme Court struck down that
law as well.
See City of Boerne v.
Flores (521 U.S. 507 (1997)).
Note that in Church of the
Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah
(508 U.S. 520 (1993)), the Court said that when the government attempts to
ban something specifically in order to interfere with a religious
practice, then the standard of review is strict scrutiny.