Highlights from the SCOTUS Ruling referred to by the New Mexico Supreme Court Ruling


*874 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 peyote 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. Ore. Rev. Stat. § 475.992(4) (1987). The law defines “controlled substance” as a drug classified in Schedules I through V of the Federal Controlled Substances Act, 21 U. S. C. §§ 811-812, as modified by the State Board of Pharmacy. Ore. Rev. Stat. § 475.005(6) (1987). Persons who violate this provision by possessing a controlled substance listed on Schedule I are “guilty of a Class B felony.” § 475.992(4)(a). As compiled by the State Board of Pharmacy under its statutory authority, see § 475.035, Schedule I contains the drug peyote, a hallucinogen derived from the plantLophophora williamsii Lemaire. Ore. Admin. Rule 855-80-021(3)(s) (1988).

Respondents Alfred Smith and Galen Black (hereinafter respondents) were fired from their jobs with a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of the Native American Church, of which both are members. When respondents applied to petitioner Employment Division (hereinafter petitioner) 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.


The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which has been made applicable to the States by incorporation into 877*877 the Fourteenth Amendment, see Cantwell v.Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 303 (1940), provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” U. S. Const., Amdt. 1 (emphasis added). 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.” Sherbert v. Verner, supra, at 402. The government may not compel affirmation of religious belief, see Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U. S. 488 (1961), punish the expression of religious doctrines it believes to be false, United States v. Ballard, 322 U. S. 78, 86-88 (1944), impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status, see McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U. S. 618 (1978);Fowler v. Rhode Island, 345 U. S. 67, 69 (1953); cf. Larson v. Valente, 456 U. S. 228, 245 (1982), or lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or dogma, see Presbyterian Church in U. S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U. S. 440, 445-452 (1969)Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U. S. 94, 95-119 (1952)Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocesev. Milivojevich, 426 U. S. 696, 708-725 (1976).

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 878*878 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. CompareCitizen Publishing Co. v. United States, 394 U. S. 131, 139 (1969) (upholding application of antitrust laws to press), with Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U. S. 233, 250-251 (1936) (striking down license tax applied only to newspapers with weekly circulation above a specified level); see generally Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Comm’r of Revenue, 460 U. S. 575, 581 (1983).

Our decisions reveal that the latter reading is the correct one. We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs 879*879 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 inMinersville School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Gobitis, 310 U. S. 586, 594-595 (1940): “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 (footnote omitted).” 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.” Id., at 166-167.