Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith

In Employment Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court ruled that their religious beliefs do not necessarily exempt people from compliance with neutral, generally applicable laws. The ruling has had a significant effect on the interpretation of the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment. Although Employment Division was not an education case, it has had a broad and profound effect on disputes involving persons alleging that government entities have limited or intruded upon the exercise of their religion, both in and out of educational contexts.

The Ruling

At issue in Employment Division was the status of two former employees of the Oregon Department of Human Resources who were discharged for violating the state’s illegal drug act by using a prohibited substance, peyote. When the employees were denied unemployment compensation benefits, they filed suit under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that use of the peyote had been pursuant to a Native American religious ceremony. They also claimed unsuccessfully that the state’s denial of benefits infringed upon the exercise of their religion under the U.S. Constitution.

In an extraordinary decision, the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, upheld the employees’ discharge and their denial of unemployment compensation benefits. The Court observed that it had “never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuses him from compliance with . . . valid and neutral laws of general applicability” (Employment Division, p. 879).

In support of its rationale, the Court relied heavily on United States v. Lee (1982), wherein it had rejected an Amish employer’s free exercise claim that his faith prohibited participation in governmental support programs and thus he should be exempt from the collection and payment of Social Security taxes for his Amish employees. In Employment Division, the Court reasoned that the only time it had held

that the First Amendment bars application of a neutral, generally applicable law to religiously motivated action have involved not the Free Exercise Clause alone, but the Free Exercise Clause in conjunction with other constitutional protections, such as freedom of speech and of the press. (p. 881)

Further, the Court looked for an example to its own precedent in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) decided almost two decades earlier. In Yoder, the Court upheld the objections of Amish parents to complying with the state of Wisconsin’s compulsory attendance law. Even so, Yoder involved parental claims under not only the Free Exercise Clause but also the right of parents to direct the education of their children under the Liberty Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Employment Division, the Court found that there was no such hybrid claim at issue since there was no contention that the drug laws were an attempt “to regulate religious beliefs” (p. 882). The Court thus concluded that the laws satisfied neutrality and generally applicable criteria.

Impact of the Decision

Employment Division had an immediate and profound effect on claims grounded in the Free Exercise Clause. Following Employment Division, the Supreme Court recognized another exception to its neutral, generally applicable criterion, in addition to hybrid claims, namely, those grounded in animosity toward religion.

In Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993), the Court struck down a city ordinance that while purporting to prevent the killing of animals contained so many exceptions that its real and sole purpose appeared to be prohibiting the Santeria religion’s use of animals for sacrifices. The Lukumi Court noted that the ordinance, which was neither neutral nor generally applicable, targeted the Santeria religion. Where a government action fails the Employment Division neutral, generally applicable criterion, the Court explained that officials must produce evidence that their conduct is “justified by a compelling governmental interest [that is] narrowly tailored to advance that interest” (Lukumi, pp. 531–32). Insofar as the ordinance failed this test, the Court decided that its purposes were “animosity to Santeria adherents [and] the suppression of [their] religion” (p. 542).

Animosity claims have generally been unsuccessful, although courts have more recently obviated the need to produce evidence of such animosity in disputes involving free speech claims where government action is framed not by claims of animosity, but of viewpoint discrimination. Thus, it is probably more than coincidental that Supreme Court decisions such as Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (1993), Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia (1995), and Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001), in which the justices uncovered viewpoint discrimination, have also gratuitously declared in dictum that hostility toward religion is likewise prohibited by the Free Speech Clause (Lamb’s Chapel, p. 390, Note 4; Milford, p. 118; Rosenberger, pp. 845–846).

Ralph D. Mawdsley

See also Good News Club v. Milford Central School; Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District; Wisconsin v. Yoder

Further Readings

  • Mawdsley, R. (1992). Employment Division v. Smith revisited: The constriction of Free Exercise rights under the United States Constitution. Education Law Reporter, 76, 1–16. 

Legal Citations

  • Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). 
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 
  • Employment Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). 
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001). 
  • Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993). 
  • Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995). 
  • United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982). 
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).