U.S. Supreme Court

No. 86-946.
Argued December 8, 1987
Decided April 27, 1988

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents are drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation counselors who were discharged after they ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, during a religious ceremony of the Native American Church. Both applied for and were denied unemployment compensation by petitioner Employment Division. The Oregon Supreme Court held that this denial, although proper as a matter of Oregon law, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution. In reaching that conclusion the state court attached no significance to the fact that the possession of peyote is a felony under Oregon law punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years. Because we are persuaded that the alleged illegality of respondents' conduct is relevant to the constitutional analysis, we granted certiorari, 480 U.S. 916 (1987), and now vacate the judgments and remand for further proceedings.


Respondents Alfred Smith and Galen Black were employed by the Douglas County Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT), a nonprofit corporation that provides treatment for alcohol and drug abusers. Both were qualified to be counselors, in part, because they had former drug and alcohol dependencies. As a matter of policy, ADAPT required its recovering counselors to abstain from the use of alcohol and illegal drugs. ADAPT terminated respondents' employment because they violated that policy. As to each of them the violation consisted of a single act of ingesting a small quantity of peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native American Church. It is undisputed that respondents are members of that church, that their religious beliefs are sincere, and that those beliefs motivated the "misconduct" that led to their discharge.

Both respondents applied for unemployment compensation. Petitioner Employment Division considered the applications in a series of administrative hearings and appeals, at the conclusion of which it determined that the applications should be denied. Petitioner considered and rejected respondents' constitutional claim and concluded that they were ineligible for benefits because they had been discharged for work-related "misconduct."

The Oregon Court of Appeals, considering the constitutional issue en banc, reversed the Board's decisions. The Oregon Supreme Court granted the State's petitions for review in both cases to consider whether the denial of benefits violated the Oregon Constitution or the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution. The cases were argued together, but the court issued separate opinions, fully analyzing the constitutional issues only in Smith.

In accordance with its usual practice, the court first addressed the Oregon constitutional issue. The court concluded:

"Under the Oregon Constitution's freedom of religion provisions, claimant has not shown that his right to worship according to the dictates of his conscience has been infringed upon by the denial of unemployment benefits. We do not imply that a governmental rule or policy disqualifying a person from employment or from public services or benefits by reason of conduct that rests on a religious belief or a religious practice could not impinge on the religious freedom guaranteed by Article I, sections 2 and 3. Nor do we revive a distinction between constitutional `rights' and `privileges.' But here it was not the government that disqualified claimant from his job for ingesting peyote. And the rule denying unemployment benefits to one who loses his job for what an employer permissibly considers misconduct, conduct incompatible with doing the job, is itself a neutral rule, as we have said. As long as disqualification by reason of the religiously based conduct is peculiar to the particular employment and most other jobs remain open to the worker, we do not believe that the state is denying the worker a vital necessity in applying the `misconduct' exception of the unemployment compensation law." 301 Ore. 209, 216, 721 P.2d 445, 448-449 (1986).

Turning to the federal issue, the court reasoned that our decisions in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), and Thomas v. Review Bd., Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), required it to hold that the denial of unemployment benefits significantly burdened respondent's religious freedom. The court also concluded that the State's interest in denying benefits was not greater in this case than in Sherbert or Thomas. This conclusion rested on the premise that the Board had erroneously relied on the State's interest in proscribing the use of dangerous drugs rather than just its interest in the financial integrity of the compensation fund. Whether the state court believed that it was constrained by Sherbert and Thomas to disregard the State's law enforcement interest, or did so because it believed petitioner to have conceded that the legality of respondent's conduct was not in issue, is not entirely clear. The relevant paragraph in the court's opinion reads as follows:

"Nor is the state's interest in this case a more `overriding' or `compelling' interest than in Sherbert and Thomas. The Board found that the state's interest in proscribing the use of dangerous drugs was the compelling interest that justified denying the claimant unemployment benefits. However, the legality of ingesting peyote does not affect our analysis of the state's interest. The state's interest in denying unemployment benefits to a claimant discharged for religiously motivated misconduct must be found in the unemployment compensation statutes, not in the criminal statutes proscribing the use of peyote. The Employment Division concedes that `the commission of an illegal act is not, in and of itself, grounds for disqualification from unemployment benefits. ORS 657.176(3) permits disqualification only if a claimant commits a felony in connection with work . . . . [T]he legality of [claimant's] ingestion of peyote has little direct bearing on this case." 301 Ore., at 218-219, 721 P.2d, at 450.

The court noted that although the possession of peyote is a crime in Oregon, such possession is lawful in many jurisdictions.

In its opinion in Black, the court rejected the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the case should be remanded for factual findings on the religious character of respondent's peyote use. Although the referee's findings concerning the use of peyote were somewhat sparse, the court found them sufficient to support the conclusions that the Native American Church is a recognized religion, that peyote is a sacrament of that church, and that respondent's beliefs were sincerely held. The court noted that other courts had acknowledged the role of peyote in the Native American Church and quoted at length from a decision of the California Supreme Court. This extensive quotation from an opinion that explains why the religious use of peyote is permitted in California raises the question whether the Oregon court might reach a similar conclusion.


Respondents contend that the sacramental use of small quantities of peyote in the Native American Church is comparable to the sacramental use of small quantities of alcohol in Christian religious ceremonies. Even though the State may generally prohibit the use of hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol for recreational purposes and strictly regulate their use for medicinal purposes, respondents assert that the Constitution requires some measure of accommodation for religious use. Alternatively, they argue that Oregon's general prohibition against the possession of peyote is not applicable to its use in a genuine religious ceremony. Even if peyote use is a crime in Oregon, since the State does not administer its unemployment compensation program for law enforcement purposes, they conclude that our decisions in Sherbert and Thomas require that they be awarded benefits.

The Oregon Supreme Court agreed with respondents' conclusion, but it did not endorse all of their reasoning. The state court appears to have assumed, without specifically deciding, that respondents' conduct was unlawful. That assumption did not influence the court's disposition of the cases because, as a matter of state law, the commission of an illegal act is not itself a ground for disqualifying a discharged employee from benefits. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the illegality of an employee's misconduct is irrelevant to the analysis of the federal constitutional claim. For if a State has prohibited through its criminal laws certain kinds of religiously motivated conduct without violating the First Amendment, it certainly follows that it may impose the lesser burden of denying unemployment compensation benefits to persons who engage in that conduct.

There is no absolute "constitutional right to unemployment benefits on the part of all persons whose religious convictions are the cause of their unemployment." Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S., at 409-410. On three separate occasions, however, we have held that an employee who is required to choose between fidelity to religious belief and cessation of work may not be denied unemployment compensation because he or she is faithful to the tenets of his or her church. As we explained in Sherbert:

"Governmental imposition of such a choice puts the same kind of burden upon the free exercise of religion as would a fine imposed against appellant for her Saturday worship." Id., at 404.

In Sherbert, as in Thomas and Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U.S. 142 (1987), the conduct that gave rise to the termination of employment was perfectly legal; indeed, the Court assumed that it was immune from state regulation.

The results we reached in Sherbert, Thomas, and Hobbie might well have been different if the employees had been discharged for engaging in criminal conduct. We have held that bigamy may be forbidden, even when the practice is dictated by sincere religious convictions. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879). If a bigamist may be sent to jail despite the religious motivation for his misconduct, surely a State may refuse to pay unemployment compensation to a marriage counselor who was discharged because he or she entered into a bigamous relationship. The protection that the First Amendment provides to "`legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion,'" see Hobbie, 480 U.S., at 142 (quoting Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215 (1972)) (emphasis added), does not extend to conduct that a State has validly proscribed.

Neither the Oregon Supreme Court nor this Court has confronted the question whether the ingestion of peyote for sincerely held religious reasons is a form of conduct that is protected by the Federal Constitution from the reach of a State's criminal laws. It may ultimately be necessary to answer that federal question in this case, but it is inappropriate to do so without first receiving further guidance concerning the status of the practice as a matter of Oregon law. A substantial number of jurisdictions have exempted the use of peyote in religious ceremonies from legislative prohibitions against the use and possession of controlled substances. If Oregon is one of those States, respondents' conduct may well be entitled to constitutional protection. On the other hand, if Oregon does prohibit the religious use of peyote, and if that prohibition is consistent with the Federal Constitution, there is no federal right to engage in that conduct in Oregon. If that is the case, the State is free to withhold unemployment compensation from respondents for engaging in work-related misconduct, despite its religious motivation. Thus, paradoxical as it may first appear, a necessary predicate to a correct evaluation of respondents' federal claim is an understanding of the legality of their conduct as a matter of state law.

Relying on the fact that Oregon statutes prohibit the possession of peyote, see Ore. Rev. Stat. 475.992(4) (1987), rather than its use, and the further fact that the Oregon Court of Appeals held that the ingestion of a controlled substance into the bloodstream did not constitute "possession" within the meaning of the predecessor statute, State v. Downes, 31 Ore. App. 1183, 572 P.2d 1328 (1977), respondents argue that their ceremonial use of the drug was not unlawful. The Attorney General of the State advises us that this argument is without merit. But in the absence of a definitive ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court we are unwilling to disregard the possibility that the State's legislation regulating the use of controlled substances may be construed to permit peyotism or that the State's Constitution may be interpreted to protect the practice. That the Oregon Supreme Court's opinions in these cases not only noted that other States "exempt the religious use of peyote through caselaw," but also quoted extensively from a California opinion that did so, lends credence to the possibility that this conduct may be lawful in Oregon.

Because we are uncertain about the legality of the religious use of peyote in Oregon, it is not now appropriate for us to decide whether the practice is protected by the Federal Constitution. See Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346-347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring). The possibility that respondents' conduct would be unprotected if it violated the State's criminal code is, however, sufficient to counsel against affirming the state court's holding that the Federal Constitution requires the award of benefits to these respondents. If the Oregon Supreme Court's holding rests on the unstated premise that respondents' conduct is entitled to the same measure of federal constitutional protection regardless of its criminality, that holding is erroneous. If, on the other hand, it rests on the unstated premise that the conduct is not unlawful in Oregon, the explanation of that premise would make it more difficult to distinguish our holdings in Sherbert, Thomas, and Hobbie. We therefore vacate the judgments of the Oregon Supreme Court and remand the cases for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.