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Employment Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith/Dissent Blackmun

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion
Dissenting Opinion

Justice BLACKMUN, with whom Justice BRENNAN and Justice MARSHALL join, dissenting.

This Court over the years painstakingly has developed a consistent and exacting standard to test the constitutionality of a state statute that burdens the free exercise of religion. Such a statute may stand only if the law in general, and the State's refusal to allow a religious exemption in particular, are justified by a compelling interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means. [1] 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." Ante, at 886. As carefully detailed in Justice O'CONNOR's concurring opinion, ante, p. 891, 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, 60 S.Ct. 900, 84 L.Ed. 1213 (1940), and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972), as "hybrid." Ante, at 882. 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). Ante, at 884-885. 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. Ante, at 882-884. 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, ante, at 888, and that the repression of minority religions is an "unavoidable consequence of democratic government." Ante, at 890. 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. [2] 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.' " Ante, at 905, quoting United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 259, 102 S.Ct. 1051, 1056, 71 L.Ed.2d 127 (1982). I do disagree, however, with her specific answer to that question.

* In weighing the clear interest of respondents Smith and Black (hereinafter respondents) 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. See Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693, 728, 106 S.Ct. 2147, 2167, 90 L.Ed.2d 735 (1986) (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) ("This Court has consistently asked the Government to demonstrate that unbending application of its regulation to the religious objector 'is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest,' " quoting Lee, 455 U.S., at 257-258, 102 S.Ct., at 1055); Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707, 719, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 1432, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981) ("focus of the inquiry" concerning State's asserted interest must be "properly narrowed"); Yoder, 406 U.S., at 221, 92 S.Ct., at 1536 ("Where fundamental claims of religious freedom are at stake," the Court will not accept a State's "sweeping claim" that its interest in compulsory education is compelling; despite the validity of this interest "in the generality of cases, we must searchingly examine the interests that the State seeks to promote . . . and the impediment to those objectives that would flow from recognizing the claimed Amish exemption"). Failure to reduce the competing interests to the same plane of generality tends to distort the weighing process in the State's favor. See Clark, Guidelines for the Free Exercise Clause, 83 Harv.L.Rev. 327, 330-331 (1969) ("The purpose of almost any law can be traced back to one or another of the fundamental concerns of government: public health and safety, public peace and order, defense, revenue. To measure an individual interest directly against one of these rarified values inevitably makes the individual interest appear the less significant"); Pound, A Survey of Social Interests, 57 Harv.L.Rev. 1, 2 (1943) ("When it comes to weighing or valuing claims or demands with respect to other claims or demands, we must be careful to compare them on the same plane . . . [or else] we may decide the question in advance in our very way of putting it").

The State's interest in enforcing its prohibition, in order to be sufficiently compelling to outweigh a free exercise claim, 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. [3] 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," Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656, 687, 109 S.Ct. 1384, 1402, 103 L.Ed.2d 685 (1989) (SCALIA, J., dissenting), 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. See Thomas, 450 U.S., at 719, 101 S.Ct., at 1432 (rejecting State's reasons for refusing religious exemption, for lack of "evidence in the record"); Yoder, 406 U.S., at 224-229, 92 S.Ct., at 1537-38 (rejecting State's argument concerning the dangers of a religious exemption as speculative, and unsupported by the record); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 407, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 1795, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963) ("[T]here is no proof whatever to warrant such fears . . . as those which the [State] now advance[s]"). 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. [4] The factual findings of other courts cast doubt on the State's assumption that religious use of peyote is harmful. See State v. Whittingham, 19 Ariz.App. 27, 30, 504 P.2d 950, 953 (1973) ("[T]he State failed to prove that the quantities of peyote used in the sacraments of the Native American Church are sufficiently harmful to the health and welfare of the participants so as to permit a legitimate intrusion under the State's police power"); People v. Woody, 61 Cal.2d 716, 722-723, 40 Cal.Rptr. 69, 74, 394 P.2d 813, 818 (1964) ("[A]s the Attorney General . . . admits, . . . the opinion of scientists and other experts is 'that peyote . . . works no permanent deleterious injury to the Indian' ").

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. [5] Moreover, other Schedule I drugs have lawful uses. See Olsen v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 279 U.S.App.D.C. 1, 6, n. 4, 878 F.2d 1458, 1463, n. 4 (medical and research uses of marijuana).

The carefully circumscribed ritual context in which respondents used peyote is far removed from the irresponsible and unrestricted recreational use of unlawful drugs. [6] 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, id., at 10, 878 F.2d, at 1467 (" 'The Administrator [of the Drug Enforcement Administration (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)); id., at 7, 878 F.2d, at 1464 ("[F]or members of the Native American Church, use of peyote outside the ritual is sacrilegious"); Woody, 61 Cal.2d, at 721, 394 P.2d, at 817 ("[T]o use peyote for nonreligious purposes is sacrilegious"); R. Julien, A Primer of Drug Action 148 (3d ed. 1981) ("[P]eyote is seldom abused by members of the Native American Church"); Slotkin, The Peyote Way, in Teachings from the American Earth 96, 104 (D. Tedlock & B. Tedlock eds. 1975) ("[T]he Native American Church . . . refuses to permit the presence of curiosity seekers at its rites, and vigorously opposes the sale or use of Peyote for non-sacramental purposes"); Bergman, Navajo Peyote Use: Its Apparent Safety, 128 Am.J. Psychiatry 695 (1971) (Bergman). [7]

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. See Yoder, 406 U.S., at 224, 228-229, 92 S.Ct., at 1540 (since the Amish accept formal schooling up to 8th grade, and then provide "ideal" vocational education, State's interest in enforcing its law against the Amish is "less substantial than . . . for children generally"); id., at 238, 92 S.Ct., at 1544 (WHITE, J., concurring). Not only does the church's doctrine forbid nonreligious use of peyote; it also generally advocates self-reliance, familial responsibility, and abstinence from alcohol. See Brief for Association on American Indian Affairs et al. as Amici Curiae 33-34 (the church's "ethical code" has four parts: brotherly love, care of family, self-reliance, and avoidance of alcohol (quoting from the church membership card)); Olsen, 279 U.S.App.D.C., at 7, 878 F.2d, at 1464 (the Native American Church, "for all purposes other than the special, stylized ceremony, reinforced the state's prohibition"); Woody, 61 Cal.2d, at 721-722, n. 3, 394 P.2d, at 818, n. 3 ("[M]ost anthropological authorities hold Peyotism to be a positive, rather than negative, force in the lives of its adherents . . . the church forbids the use of alcohol . . ."). There is considerable evidence that the spiritual and social support provided by the church has been effective in combating the tragic effects of alcoholism on the Native American population. Two noted experts on peyotism, Dr. Omer C. Stewart and Dr. Robert Bergman, testified by affidavit to this effect on behalf of respondent Smith before the Employment Appeal Board. Smith Tr., Exh. 7; see also E. Anderson, Peyote: The Divine Cactus 165-166 (1980) (research by Dr. Bergman suggests "that the religious use of peyote seemed to be directed in an ego-strengthening direction with an emphasis on interpersonal relationships where each individual is assured of his own significance as well as the support of the group"; many people have " 'come through difficult crises with the help of this religion. . . . It provides real help in seeing themselves not as people whose place and way in the world is gone, but as people whose way can be strong enough to change and meet new challenges' " (quoting Bergman 698)); Pascarosa & Futterman, Ethnopsychedelic Therapy for Alcoholics: Observations in the Peyote Ritual of the Native American Church, 8 J. of Psychedelic Drugs, No. 3, p. 215 (1976) (religious peyote use has been helpful in overcoming alcoholism); Albaugh & Anderson, Peyote in the Treatment of Alcoholism among American Indians, 131 Am.J. Psychiatry 1247, 1249 (1974) ("[T]he philosophy, teachings, and format of the [Native American Church] can be of great benefit to the Indian alcoholic"); see generally O. Stewart, Peyote Religion 75 et seq. (1987) (noting frequent observations, across many tribes and periods in history, of correlation between peyotist religion 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. See Olsen, 279 U.S.App.D.C., at 6, 7, 878 F.2d, at 1463, 1467 (quoting DEA Final Order to the effect that total amount of peyote seized and analyzed by federal authorities between 1980 and 1987 was 19.4 pounds; in contrast, total amount of marijuana seized during that period was over 15 million pounds). Also, the availability of peyote for religious use, even if Oregon were to allow an exemption from its criminal laws, would still be strictly controlled by federal regulations, see 21 U.S.C. §§ 821-823 (registration requirements for distribution of controlled substances); 21 CFR § 1307.31 (1989) (distribution of peyote to Native American Church subject to registration requirements), and by the State of Texas, the only State in which peyote grows in significant quantities. See Texas Health & Safety Code Ann. § 481.111 (1990 pamphlet); Texas Admin.Code, Tit. 37, pt. 1, ch. 13, Controlled Substances Regulations, §§ 13.35-13.41 (1989); Woody, 61 Cal.2d, at 720, 394 P.2d, at 816 (peyote is "found in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and northern Mexico"). 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. See Lupu, Where Rights Begin: The Problem of Burdens on the Free Exercise of Religion, 102 Harv.L.Rev. 933, 947 (1989) ("Behind every free exercise claim is a spectral march; grant this one, a voice whispers to each judge, and you will be confronted with an endless chain of exemption demands from religious deviants of every stripe"). This Court, however, consistently has rejected similar arguments in past free exercise cases, and it should do so here as well. See Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829, 835, 109 S.Ct. 1514, 1518, 103 L.Ed.2d 914 (1989) (rejecting State's speculation concerning cumulative effect of many similar claims); Thomas, 450 U.S., at 719, 101 S.Ct., at 1432 (same); Sherbert, 374 U.S., at 407, 83 S.Ct., at 1795.

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. [8] 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. See, e.g., Olsen, 279 U.S.App.D.C., at 7, 878 F.2d, at 1464 ("[T]he Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church . . . teaches that marijuana is properly smoked 'continually all day' "). Some religious claims, see n. 8, supra, 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. [9] 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, 92 S.Ct., at 1543; this does not mean that an exemption limited to peyote use is tantamount to an establishment of religion. See Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U.S. 136, 144-145, 107 S.Ct. 1046, 1051, 94 L.Ed.2d 190 (1987) ("[T]he government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices and . . . may do so without violating the Establishment Clause"); Yoder, 406 U.S., at 220-221, 92 S.Ct., at 1536 ("Court must not ignore the danger that an exception from a general [law] . . . may run afoul of the Establishment Clause, but that danger cannot be allowed to prevent any exception no matter how vital it may be to the protection of values promoted by the right of free exercise"); id., at 234, n. 22, 92 S.Ct., at 1542, n. 22.

Finally, although I agree with Justice O'CONNOR that courts should refrain from delving into questions whether, as a matter of religious doctrine, a particular practice is "central" to the religion, ante, at 906-907, 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. Cf. Yoder, 406 U.S., at 219, 92 S.Ct., at 1535 (since "education is inseparable from and a part of the basic tenets of their religion . . . [, just as] baptism, the confessional, or a sabbath may be for others," enforcement of State's compulsory education law would "gravely endanger if not destroy the free exercise of respondents' religious beliefs").

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. See Brief for Association on American Indian Affairs et al. as Amici Curiae 5-6 ("To the members, peyote is consecrated with powers to heal body, mind and spirit. It is a teacher; it teaches the way to spiritual life through living in harmony and balance with the forces of the Creation. The rituals are an integral part of the life process. They embody a form of worship in which the sacrament Peyote is the means for communicating with the Great Spirit"). See also O. Stewart, Peyote Religion 327-330 (1987) (description of peyote ritual); T. Hillerman, People of Darkness 153 (1980) (description of Navajo peyote ritual).

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, 92 S.Ct., at 1534-1535. 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, 92 Stat. 469, 42 U.S.C. § 1996 (1982 ed.) ("[I]t 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"). [10] 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." H.R.Rep. No. 95-1308, p. 2 (1978), U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1978, pp. 1262, 1263.

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.

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," see ante, at 874, 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.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).