Oregon V Smith Decided: April 1990

By: Leah Prager

Facts of the case

Two Native Americans, Smith and Black, who worked as counselors for a private drug rehabilitation organization, ingested peyote- a strong hallucinogen, as part of their religious ceremonies as members of the Native American Church. Because of this, they got fired. Smith and Black filed a claim for unemployment compensation. The government then denied them benefits because their dismissal was considered work-related "misconduct."

The Oregon Supreme Court decided that while Oregon drug law prohibited the consumption of illegal drugs for sacramental religious uses, this prohibition violated the free exercise clause.

Constitutional Reference and Issues before the Court

Issue: Can a state deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes?

Constitutional Reference: First Amendment-Freedom of Religion and Free Exercise Clause


Oregon Employment Division:

Freedom to act, unlike believe, cannot be absolute (limits on belief acts)
1st amendment does not prohibit regulation of conduct.
Govt. is allowed to regulate conduct, including religious actions.

Alfred Smith:

1st amendment gives freedom to religion in all circumstances.

Religious liberty is an individual liberty that Supreme Court cannot encroach upon.



Listen to Opinion Announcement (left side)

Immediate Effect

The Supreme Court made the case a landmark by overturning the Sherbert standard and establishing a new rule. A divided Court held that states were not required to grant religiously-based exemptions to neutral, generally applicable laws. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia maintained that only when a law specifically targeted religion, or implicated both religious exercise and such freedoms as press, speech, or assembly, could a free-exercise challenge succeed. Otherwise, if "prohibiting the exercise of religion . . . [is] merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended."


Governments no longer have to worry about granting exemptions to laws that apply to the general public due to it affecting religious beliefs or practices, as long as the intention is for the general public's safety.

Future Significance

After the Supreme Court overruled the passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which had amazing support in both the house and senate, we are left with the impression that the original decision and precedent set by this case will stand.