Supreme Court decision of the case of Employment Division v. Smith addressed
the application of the right to freedom of religion, as guaranteed under the , to otherwise illegal acts. The opinion of the Supreme Court was
that states had the power but not the obligation to allow criminal acts in
order to honor the principle of religious freedom. In this way, the Supreme
Court allowed the State to deny unemployment benefits to the person making the
appeal and struck down the opinion of the Oregon Supreme Court that this action
violated the Constitutional right to freedom of religion.
The complainant, Alfred Smith, had been employed
by the State of Oregon as a drug rehabilitation counselor. His superiors
dismissed him upon learning that he had used a controlled substance, peyote, in
the course of a ceremony performed in the religion he practiced. The State then
withheld unemployment benefits to Smith on the grounds that his own misconduct
had cost him his position.
Court of Appeals found against this decision on the grounds that the peyote
usage was protected under religious freedom and found support in this decision
from the State Supreme Court. Oregon thus submitted an appeal to the U.S.
Supreme Court to argue that the right to freedom of religion did not apply to
either the initial dismissal of Joseph Smith or the later denial of benefits to
him. The case then turned to the broader question of the constitutionality of
Oregon’s laws on drug usage.
The Supreme Court found that the Oregon law used
to make the decision against Alfred Smith did not violate the First Amendment’s
guarantee of freedom of religion in that it was generally aimed at the usage of
such substances by citizens and did not specifically address the religious
purposes to which they might be put. The law in this way could not be said to be
aimed at Alfred Smith’s religious freedom to practice his faith in a general
sense, but rather to a specific way in which he decided to practice it. In this
way, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court held that it could be reasonably
sure that the Oregon law was not covertly aimed at giving the State the ability
to violate the freedom of religion. It was instead, according to the Court’s
opinion, a “neutral law of general applicability”.
The Court has upheld this principle in regards to
claimed violations of religious freedom in a number of cases extending beyond
the subject matter of narcotics. In a well-known example of the limits which
may be placed on the freedom of religion, the practice of polygamy among
Mormons, as was once common, has been strictly forbidden. In the case of
Employment Division v. Smith, the Court thus advised the complainant to seek
the passage of laws allowing for the consumption of peyote for religious
purposes, noting that such laws had already been passed elsewhere, while
upholding the ability of the State to enforce the laws in their present state.