Peyote Case: Majority Opinion

Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith
No. 88-1213
494 U.S. 872 (1990)
April 17, 1990

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment permits the State of Oregon to include religiously inspired peyotePeyote is the popular name of the cactus Lophophora williamsii, which was called peyotl by the Aztec. The hallucinogenic buttons of the cactus are ritually harvested and ingested by various Native peoples of the Americas. The Native American Church combin... use within the reach of its general criminal prohibition on use of that drug, and thus permits the State to deny unemployment benefits to persons dismissed from their jobs because of such religiously inspired use.

Oregon law prohibits the knowing or intentional possession of a “controlled substance” unless the substance has been prescribed by a medical
practitioner. Persons who violate this provision by possessing a controlled substance listed on Schedule I are “guilty of a Class B felony. ”As
compiled by the State Board of Pharmacy under its statutory authority, Schedule I contains the drug peyote, a hallucinogen derived from the plant Lophophorawilliamsii Lemaire.

Respondents Alfred Smith and Galen Black were fired from their jobs with a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native AmericanEach of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a sp... ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., of which both are members. When respondents applied to petitioner Employment Division for unemployment compensation, they were determined to be ineligible for benefits because they had been discharged for work-related “misconduct”. The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed that determination, holding that the denial of benefits violated respondents’ free exercise rights under the First Amendment.

On appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, petitioner argued that the denial of benefits was permissible because respondents’ consumption of peyote was a crime under Oregon law. The Oregon Supreme Court reasoned, however, that the criminality of respondents’ peyote use was irrelevant to resolution of their constitutional claim — since the purpose of the “misconduct” provision under which respondents had been disqualified was not to enforce the State’s criminal laws, but to preserve the financial integrity of the compensation fund, and since that purpose was inadequate to justify the burden that disqualification imposed on respondents’ religious practice. Citing our decisions in Sherbert v. Verner, the [Oregon] court concluded that respondents were entitled to payment of unemployment benefits. .  .  .


The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which has been made applicable to the States by incorporation into the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . . ” The free exercise of religion means, first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires. Thus, the First Amendment obviously excludes all “governmental regulation of religious beliefs as such.” The government may not compel affirmation of religious belief, punish the expression of religious doctrines it believes to be false, impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status, or lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or dogma.

But the “exercise of religion” often involves not only belief and profession but the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts: assembling with others for a worship service, participating in sacramental use of bread and wine, proselytizing, abstaining from certain foods or certain modes of transportation. It would be true, we think (though no case of ours has involved the point), that a state would be “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” if it sought to ban such acts or abstentions only when they are engaged in for religious reasons, or only because of the religious belief that they display. It would doubtless be unconstitutional, for example, to ban the casting of “statues that are to be used for worship purposes,” or to prohibit bowing down before a golden calf.

Respondents in the present case, however, seek to carry the meaning of “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” one large step further. They contend that their religious motivation for using peyote places them beyond the reach of a criminal law that is not specifically directed at their religious practice, and that is concededly constitutional as applied to those who use the drug for other reasons. They assert, in other words, that “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” includes requiring any individual to observe a generally applicable law that requires (or forbids) the performance of an act that his religious belief forbids (or requires).

As a textual matter, we do not think the words must be given that meaning.

It is no more necessary to regard the collection of a general tax, for example, as “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]” by those citizens
who believe support of organized government to be sinful than it is to regard the same tax as “abridging the freedom . . . of the press” of those publishing companies that must pay the tax as a condition of staying in business. It is a permissible reading of the text, in the one case as in the other, to say that, if prohibiting the exercise of religion (or burdening the activity of printing) is not the object of the tax, but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended.

Our decisions reveal that the latter reading is the correct one. We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from

compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition. As described succinctly by Justice Frankfurter in Minersville School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Gobitis:

“Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.”

We first had occasion to assert that principle in Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879), where we rejected the claim that criminal laws against polygamy could not be constitutionally applied to those whose religion commanded the practice. “Laws,” we said, “are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. . . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Subsequent decisions have consistently held that the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a “valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).” United States v. Lee (1982) In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), we held that a mother could be prosecuted under the child labor laws for using her children to dispense literature in the streets, her religious motivation notwithstanding. We found no constitutional infirmity in “excluding [these children] from doing there what no other children may do.” In Braunfeld v. Brown (1961) we upheld Sunday closing laws against the claim that they burdened the religious practices of persons whose religions compelled them to refrain from work on other days. In Gillette v. United States (1971), we sustained the military selective service system against the claim that it violated free exercise by conscripting persons who opposed a particular war on religious grounds. Our most recent decision involving a neutral, generally applicable
regulatory law that compelled activity forbidden by an individual’s religion was United States v. Lee (1982). There, an AmishThe Amish are Protestant Christians of Anabaptist origin, beginning in Europe in the late 16th century with commitment to the adult “believer’s” baptism and to pacifism. In the U.S., the Amish in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other parts of the Midwest ha... employer, on behalf of himself and his employees, sought exemption from collection and payment of Social Security taxes on the ground that the Amish faith prohibited participation in governmental support programs. We rejected the claim that an exemption was constitutionally required. There would be no way, we observed, to distinguish the Amish believer’s objection to Social Security taxes from the religious objections that others might have to the collection or use of other taxes.

If, for example, a religious adherent believes war is a sin, and if a certain percentage of the federal budget can be identified as devoted to war-related activities, such individuals would have a similarly valid claim to be exempt from paying that percentage of the income tax. The tax system could not function if denominations were allowed to challenge the tax system because tax payments were spent in a manner that violates their religious belief.

The only decisions in which we have 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. . . . The present case does not present such a hybrid situation, but a free exercise claim unconnected with any communicative activity or parental right. Respondents urge us to hold, quite simply, that when otherwise prohibitable conduct is accompanied by religious convictions, not only the convictions but the conduct itself must be free from governmental regulation. We have never held that, and decline to do so now. There being no contention that Oregon’s drug law represents an attempt to regulate religious beliefs, the communication of religious beliefs, or the raising of one’s children in those beliefs, the rule to which we have adhered ever since Reynolds plainly controls. “Our cases do not at their farthest reach support the proposition that a stance of conscientious opposition relieves an objector from any colliding duty fixed by a democratic government.”


Respondents argue that, even though exemption from generally applicable criminal laws need not automatically be extended to religiously motivated actors, at least the claim for a [p*883] religious exemption must be evaluated under the balancing test set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963). Under the Sherbert test, governmental actions that substantially burden a religious practice must be justified by a compelling governmental interest. Applying that test, we have, on three occasions, invalidated state unemployment compensation rules that conditioned the availability of benefits upon an applicant’s willingness to work under conditions forbidden by his religion. We have never invalidated any governmental action on the basis of the Sherbert test except the denial of unemployment compensation.

In recent years we have abstained from applying the Sherbert test (outside the unemployment compensation field) at all. In Bowen v. Roy (1986), we declined to apply Sherbert analysis to a federal statutory scheme that required benefit applicants and recipients to provide their Social Security numbers. The plaintiffs in that case asserted that it would violate their religious beliefs to obtain and provide a Social Security number for their daughter. We held the statute’s application to the plaintiffs valid regardless of whether it was necessary to effectuate a compelling interest. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn. (1988), we declined to apply Sherbert analysis to the Government’s logging and road construction activities on lands used for religious purposes by several Native American Tribes, even though it was undisputed that the activities “could have devastating effects on traditional Indian religious practices.” In Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), we rejected application of the Sherbert test to military dress regulations that forbade the wearing of yarmulkes. In O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz (1987), we sustained, without mentioning the Sherbert test, a prison’s refusal to excuse inmates from work requirements to attend worship services.

Even if we were inclined to breathe into Sherbert some life beyond the unemployment compensation field, we would not apply it to require exemptions from a generally applicable criminal law. . . . Although, as noted earlier, we have sometimes used the Sherbert test to analyze free exercise challenges to such laws, we have never applied the test to invalidate one. We conclude today that the sounder approach, and the approach in accord with the vast majority of our precedents, is to hold the test inapplicable to such challenges. The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of public policy, “cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.” To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is “compelling” — permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, “to become a law unto himself,” — contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense. . . .  Nor is it possible to limit the impact of respondents’ proposal by requiring a “compelling state interest” only when the conduct prohibited is “central” to the individual’s religion. (Cf. Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Assn.) It is no more appropriate for judges to determine the “centrality” of religious beliefs before applying a “compelling interest” test in the free exercise field than it would be for them to determine the “importance” of ideas before applying the “compelling interest” test in the free speech field. What principle of law or logic can be brought to bear to contradict a believer’s assertion that a particular act is “central” to his personal faith? Judging the centrality of different religious practices is akin to the unacceptable “business of evaluating the relative merits of differing religious claims. As we reaffirmed only last Term, ”[i]t is not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith, or the validity of particular litigants’ interpretation of those creeds.

Repeatedly and in many different contexts, we have warned that courts must not presume to determine the place of a particular belief in a religion or the plausibility of a religious claim.

If the “compelling interest” test is to be applied at all, then, it must be applied across the board, to all actions thought to be religiously commanded. Moreover, if “compelling interest” really means what it says (and watering it down here would subvert its rigor in the other fields where it is applied), many laws will not meet the test. Any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy, but that danger increases in direct proportion to the society’s diversity of religious beliefs, and its determination to coerce or suppress none of them. Precisely because “we are a cosmopolitan nation made up of people of almost every conceivable religious preference,” and precisely because we value and protect that religious divergence, we cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid, as applied to the religious objector, every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order. The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind — ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races. The First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty does not require this.

Values that are protected against government interference through enshrinement in the Bill of Rights are not thereby banished from the political process. Just as a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to the press by the First Amendment is likely to enact laws that affirmatively foster the dissemination of the printed word, so also a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to religious belief can be expected to be solicitous of that value in its legislation as well. It is therefore not surprising that a number of States have made an exception to their drug laws for sacramental peyote use. But to say that a nondiscriminatory religious practice exemption is permitted, or even that it is desirable, is not to say that it is constitutionally required, and that the appropriate occasions for its creation can be discerned by the courts. It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs.

* * * *

Because respondents’ ingestion of peyote was prohibited under Oregon law, and because that prohibition is constitutional, Oregon may, consistent with the Free Exercise Clause, deny respondents unemployment compensation when their dismissal results from use of the drug. The decision of the Oregon Supreme Court is accordingly reversed.

It is so ordered.

[Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. SmithNo. 88-1213. 494 U.S. 872 (1990). April 17, 1990. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School.]