Peyote Case: Dissenting Opinion

Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith
No. 88-1213
494 U.S. 872 (1990) 


Justice Blackmun (with Justices Brennan and Marshall)  
Dissenting Opinion

Until today, I thought this was a settled and inviolate principle of this Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence. The majority, however, perfunctorily dismisses it as a “constitutional anomaly.” As carefully detailed in Justice O’Connor’s concurring opinion, the majority is able to arrive at this view only by mischaracterizing this Court’s precedents. The Court discards leading free exercise cases such as Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), as “hybrid.” The Court views traditional free exercise analysis as somehow inapplicable to criminal prohibitions (as opposed to conditions on the receipt of benefits), and to state laws of general applicability (as opposed, presumably, to laws that expressly single out religious practices). The Court cites cases in which, due to various exceptional circumstances, we found strict scrutiny inapposite, to hint that the Court has repudiated that standard altogether. In short, it effectuates a wholesale overturning of settled law concerning the Religion Clauses of our Constitution. One hopes that the Court is aware of the consequences, and that its result is not a product of overreaction to the serious problems the country’s drug crisis has generated.

This distorted view of our precedents leads the majority to conclude that strict scrutiny of a state law burdening the free exercise of religion is a “luxury” that a well-ordered society cannot afford and that the repression of minority religions is an “unavoidable consequence of democratic government.” I do not believe the Founders thought their dearly bought freedom from religious persecution a “luxury,” but an essential element of liberty — and they could not have thought religious intolerance “unavoidable,” for they drafted the Religion Clauses precisely in order to avoid that intolerance.

For these reasons, I agree with Justice O’Connor’s analysis of the applicable free exercise doctrine, and I join parts I and II of her opinion.As she points out, “the critical question in this case is whether exempting respondents from the State’s general criminal prohibition ‘will unduly interfere with fulfillment of the governmental interest.’” I do disagree, however, with her specific answer to that question.

I

In weighing respondents’ clear interest in the free exercise of their religion against Oregon’s asserted interest in enforcing its drug laws, it is important to articulate in precise terms the state interest involved. It is not the State’s broad interest in fighting the critical “war on drugs” that must be weighed against respondents’ claim, but the State’s narrow interest in refusing to make an exception for the religious, ceremonial use of peyote. . . . The State’s interest in enforcing its prohibition, in order to be sufficiently compelling to outweigh a free exercise claim, [p*911] cannot be merely abstract or symbolic. The State cannot plausibly assert that unbending application of a criminal prohibition is essential to fulfill any compelling interest if it does not, in fact, attempt to enforce that prohibition. In this case, the State actually has not evinced any concrete interest in enforcing its drug laws against religious users of peyote. Oregon has never sought to prosecute respondents, and does not claim that it has made significant enforcement efforts against other religious users of peyote. The State’s asserted interest thus amounts only to the symbolic preservation of an unenforced prohibition. But a government interest in “symbolism, even symbolism for so worthy a cause as the abolition of unlawful drugs,” cannot suffice to abrogate the constitutional rights of individuals.

Similarly, this Court’s prior decisions have not allowed a government to rely on mere speculation about potential harms, but have demanded evidentiary support for a refusal to allow a religious exception. In this case, the State’s justification for refusing to recognize an exception to its criminal laws for religious peyote use is entirely speculative.

The State proclaims an interest in protecting the health and safety of its citizens from the dangers of unlawful drugs. It offers, however, no evidence that the religious use of peyote has ever harmed anyone. The factual findings of other courts cast doubt on the State’s assumption that religious use of peyote is harmful. The fact that peyote is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance does not, by itself, show that any and all uses of peyote, in any circumstance, are inherently harmful and dangerous. The Federal Government, which created the classifications of unlawful drugs from which Oregon’s drug laws are derived, apparently does not find peyote so dangerous as to preclude an exemption for religious use. Moreover, other Schedule I drugs have lawful uses.  

The carefully circumscribed ritual context in which respondents used peyote is far removed from the irresponsible and unrestricted recreational use of unlawful drugs.  The Native American Church’s internal restrictions on, and supervision of, its members’ use of peyote substantially obviate the State’s health and safety concerns. See Olsen, 279 U.S.App.D.C. at 10, 878 F.2d at 1467 (“The Administrator [of DEA] finds that . . . the Native American Church’s use of peyote is isolated to specific ceremonial occasions,” and so “an accommodation can be made for a religious organization which uses peyote in circumscribed ceremonies” (quoting DEA Final Order));

Moreover, just as in Yoder, the values and interests of those seeking a religious exemption in this case are congruent, to a great degree, with those the State seeks to promote through its drug laws. Not only does the Church’s doctrine forbid nonreligious use of peyote; it also generally advocates self-reliance, familial responsibility, and abstinence from alcohol.  Far from promoting the lawless and irresponsible use of drugs, Native American Church members’ spiritual code exemplifies values that Oregon’s drug laws are presumably intended to foster.

The State also seeks to support its refusal to make an exception for religious use of peyote by invoking its interest in abolishing drug trafficking. There is, however, practically no illegal traffic in peyote. Peyote simply is not a popular drug; its distribution for use in religious rituals has nothing to do with the vast and violent traffic in illegal narcotics that plagues this country.

Finally, the State argues that granting an exception for religious peyote use would erode its interest in the uniform, fair, and certain enforcement of its drug laws. The State fears that, if it grants an exemption for religious peyote use, a flood of other claims to religious exemptions will follow. It would then be placed in a dilemma, it says, between allowing a patchwork of exemptions that would hinder its law enforcement efforts, and risking a violation of the Establishment Clause by arbitrarily limiting its religious exemptions. This argument, however, could be made in almost any free exercise case.  This Court, however, consistently has rejected similar arguments in past free exercise cases, and it should do so here as well.

The State’s apprehension of a flood of other religious claims is purely speculative. Almost half the States, and the Federal Government, have maintained an exemption for religious peyote use for many years, and apparently have not found themselves overwhelmed by claims to other religious exemptions. Allowing an exemption for religious peyote use would not necessarily oblige the State to grant a similar exemption to other religious groups. The unusual circumstances that make the religious use of peyote compatible with the State’s interests in health and safety and in preventing drug trafficking would not apply to other religious claims. Some religions, for example, might not restrict drug use to a limited ceremonial context, as does the Native American Church.  Some religious claims involve drugs such as marijuana and heroin, in which there is significant illegal traffic, with its attendant greed and violence, so that it would be difficult to grant a religious exemption without seriously compromising law enforcement efforts. That the State might grant an exemption for religious peyote use, but deny other religious claims arising in different circumstances, would not violate the Establishment Clause. Though the State must treat all religions equally, and not favor one over another, this obligation is fulfilled by the uniform application of the “compelling interest” test to all free exercise claims, not by reaching uniform results as to all claims. A showing that religious peyote use does not unduly interfere with the State’s interests is “one that probably few other religious groups or sects could make,” Yoder, 406 U.S. at 236; this does not mean that an exemption limited to peyote use is tantamount to an establishment of religion.

III

Finally, although I agree with Justice O’Connor that courts should refrain from delving into questions of whether, as a matter of religious doctrine, a particular practice is “central” to the religion, I do not think this means that the courts must turn a blind eye to the severe impact of a State’s restrictions on the adherents of a minority religion.

Respondents believe, and their sincerity has never been at issue, that the peyote plant embodies their deity, and eating it is an act of worship and communion. Without peyote, they could not enact the essential ritual of their religion.

If Oregon can constitutionally prosecute them for this act of worship, they, like the Amish, may be “forced to migrate to some other and more tolerant region.” Yoder, 406 U.S. at 218. This potentially devastating impact must be viewed in light of the federal policy — reached in reaction to many years of religious persecution and intolerance — of protecting the religious freedom of Native Americans. See American Indian Religious Freedom Act,  1996 (“it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions . . . , including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites”). Congress recognized that certain substances, such as peyote, “have religious significance because they are sacred, they have power, they heal, they are necessary to the exercise of the rites of the religion, they are necessary to the cultural integrity of the tribe, and, therefore, religious survival.”

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, in itself, may not create rights enforceable against government action restricting religious freedom, but this Court must scrupulously apply its free exercise analysis to the religious claims of Native Americans, however unorthodox they may be. Otherwise, both the First Amendment and the stated policy of Congress will offer to Native Americans merely an unfulfilled and hollow promise.

IV

For these reasons, I conclude that Oregon’s interest in enforcing its drug laws against religious use of peyote is not sufficiently compelling to outweigh respondents’ right to the free exercise of their religion. Since the State could not constitutionally enforce its criminal prohibition against respondents, the interests underlying the State’s drug laws cannot justify its denial of unemployment benefits. Absent such justification, the State’s regulatory interest in denying benefits for religiously motivated “misconduct,” is indistinguishable from the state interests this Court has rejected in Frazee, Hobbie, Thomas, and Sherbert. The State of Oregon cannot, consistently with the Free Exercise Clause, deny respondents unemployment benefits.

I dissent.

[Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. SmithNo. 88-1213. 494 U.S. 872 (1990). Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/.]