Sherbert v. Verner 374 U.S. 398 (1963)

Sherbert worked in a textile mill in South Carolina until her employer switched to a 6-day work week. Sherbert quit.

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 of religion.

The Trial Court found 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 determine whether:

  • 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 belief.

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 interest.

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.

In discussing the legal precedent set by Sherbert v. Verner 374 U.S. 398 (1963), the case of People v. Goetz may also provide some relevant insights. For those interested in exploring this further, additional information about the case can be found in this blog post.