Sherbert v. Verner/Dissent Harlan

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Mr. Justice HARLAN, whom Mr. Justice WHITE joins, dissenting.

Today's decision is disturbing both in its rejection of existing precedent and in its implications for the future. The significance of the decision can best be understood after an examination of the state law applied in this case.

South Carolina's Unemployment Compensation Law was enacted in 1936 in response to the grave social and economic problems that arose during the depression of that period. As stated in the statute itself:

'Economic insecurity due to unemployment is a serious menace to health, morals and welfare of the people of this State; involuntary unemployment is therefore a subject of general interest and concern * * *; the achievement of social security requires protection against this greatest hazard of our economic life; this can be provided by encouraging the employers to provide more stable employment and by the systematic accumulation of funds during periods of employment to provide benefits for periods of unemployment, thus maintaining purchasing power and limiting the serious social consequences of poor relief assistance.' § 68-38. (Emphasis added.) Thus the purpose of the legislature was to tide people over, and to avoid social and economic chaos, during periods when work was unavailable. But at the same time there was clearly no intent to provide relief for those who for purely personal reasons were or became unavailable for work. In accordance with this design, the legislature provided, in § 68-113, that '(a)n unemployed insured worker shall be eligible to receive benefits with respect to any week only if the Commission finds that * * * (h)e is able to work and is available for work * * *.' (Emphasis added.)

The South Carolina Supreme Court has uniformly applied this law in conformity with its clearly expressed purpose. It has consistently held that one is not 'available for work' if his unemployment has resulted not from the inability of industry to provide a job but rather from personal circumstances, no matter how compelling. The reference to 'involuntary unemployment' in the legislative statement of policy, whatever a sociologist, philosopher, or theologian might say, has been interpreted not to embrace such personal circumstances. See, e.g., Judson Mills v. South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Comm., 204 S.C. 37, 28 S.E.2d 535 (claimant was 'unavailable for work' when she became unable to work the third shift, and limited her availability to the other two, because of the need to care for her four children); Stone Mfg. Co. v. South Carolina Employment Security Comm., 219 S.C. 239, 64 S.E.2d 644; Hartsville Cotton Mill v. South Carolina Employment Security Comm., 224 S.C. 407, 79 S.E.2d 381.

In the present case all that the state court has done is to apply these accepted principles. Since virtually all of the mills in the Spartanburg area were operating on a six-day week, the appellant was 'unavailable for work,' and thus ineligible for benefits, when personal considerations prevented her from accepting employment on a full-time basis in the industry and locality in which she had worked. The fact that these personal considerations sprang from her religious convictions was wholly without relevance to the state court's application of the law. Thus in no proper sense can it be said that the State discriminated against the appellant on the basis of her religious beliefs or that she was denied benefits because she was a Seventh-day Adventist. She was denied benefits just as any other claimant would be denied benefits who was not 'available for work' for personal reasons. [1]

With this background, this Court's decision comes into clearer focus. What the Court is holding is that if the State chooses to condition unemployment compensation on the applicant's availability for work, it is constitutionally compelled to carve out an exception-and to provide benefits-for those whose unavailability is due to their religious convictions. [2] Such a holding has particular significance in two respects.

First, despite the Court's protestations to the contrary, the decision necessarily overrules Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599, 81 S.Ct. 1144, 6 L.Ed.2d 563, which held that it did not offend the 'Free Exercise' Clause of the Constitution for a State to forbid a Sabbatarian to do business on Sunday. The secular purpose of the statute before us today is even clearer than that involved in Braunfeld. And just as in Braunfeld-where exceptions to the Sunday closing laws for Sabbatarians would have been inconsistent with the purpose to achieve a uniform day of rest and would have required case-by-case inquiry into religious beliefs-so here, an exception to the rules of eligibility based on religious convictions would necessitate judicial examination of those convictions and would be at odds with the limited purpose of the statute to smooth out the economy during periods of industrial instability. Finally, the indirect financial burden of the present law is far less than that involved in Braunfeld. Forcing a store owner to close his business on Sunday may well have the effect of depriving him of a satisfactory livelihood if his religious convictions require him to close on Saturday as well. Here we are dealing only with temporary benefits, amounting to a fraction of regular weekly wages and running for not more than 22 weeks. See §§ 68-104, 68-105. Clearly, any differences between this case and Braunfeld cut against the present appellant. [3]

Second, the implications of the present decision are far more troublesome than its apparently narrow dimensions would indicate at first glance. The meaning of today's holding, as already noted, is that the State must furnish unemployment benefits to one who is unavailable for work if the unavailability stems from the exercise of religious convictions. The State, in other words, must single out for financial assistance those whose behavior is religiously motivated, even though it denies such assistance to others whose identical behavior (in this case, inability to work no Saturdays) is not religiously motivated.

It has been suggested that such singling out of religious conduct for special treatment may violate the constitutional limitations on state action. See Kurland. Of Church and State and The Supreme Court, 29 U. of Chi.L.Rev. 1; cf. Cammarano v. United States, 358 U.S. 498, 515, 79 S.Ct. 524, 534, 3 L.Ed.2d 462 (concurring opinion). My own view, however, is that at least under the circumstances of this case it would be a permissible accommodation of religion for the State, if it chose to do so, to create an exception to its eligibility requirements for persons like the appellant. The constitutional obligation of 'neutrality,' see School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 372 U.S., p. 222, 83 S.Ct., p. 1571, is not so narrow a channel that the slightest deviation from an absolutely straight course leads to condemnation. There are too many instances in which no such course can be charted, too many areas in which the pervasive activities of the State justify some special provision for religion to prevent it from being submerged by an all-embracing secularism. The State violates its obligation of neutrality when, for example, it mandates a daily religious exercise in its public schools, with all the attendant pressures on the school children that such an exercise entails. See Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S.Ct. 1261, 8 L.Ed.2d 601; School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, supra. But there is, I believe, enough flexibility in the Constitution to permit a legislative judgment accommodating an unemployment compensation law to the exercise of religious beliefs such as appellant's.

For very much the same reasons, however, I cannot subscribe to the conclusion that the State is constitutionally compelled to carve out an exception to its general rule of eligibility in the present case. Those situations in which the Constitution may require special treatment on account of religion are, in my view, few and far between, and this view is amply supported by the course of constitutional litigation in this area. See, e.g., Braunfeld v. Brown, supra; Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14, 67 S.Ct. 13, 91 L.Ed. 12; Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 64 S.Ct. 438, 88 L.Ed. 645; Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 25 S.Ct. 358, 49 L.Ed. 643; Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 25 L.Ed. 244. Such compulsion in the present case is particularly inappropriate in light of the indirect, remote, and insubstantial effect of the decision below on the exercise of appellant's religion and in light of the direct financial assistance to religion that today's decision requires.

For these reasons I respectfully dissent from the opinion and judgment of the Court. [4]


^1  I am completely at a loss to understand note 4 of the Court's opinion. Certainly the Court is not basing today's decision on the unsupported supposition that some day, the South Carolina Supreme Court may conclude that there is some personal reason for unemployment that may not disqualify a claimant for relief. In any event, I submit it is perfectly clear that South Carolina would not compensate persons who became unemployed for any personal reason, as distinguished from layoffs or lack of work, since the State Supreme Court's decisions make it plain that such persons would not be regarded as 'available for work' within the manifest meaning of the eligibility requirements. Not can I understand what this Court means when it says that 'if the eligibility provisions were thus limited, it would have been unnecessary for the (South Carolina) court to have decided appellant's constitutional challenge * * *.'

^2  The Court does suggest, in a rather startling disclaimer, ante, p. 409-410, that its holding is limited in applicability to those whose religious convictions do not make them 'nonproductive' members of society, noting that most of the Seventh-day Adventists in the Spartanburg area are employed. But surely this disclaimer cannot be taken seriously, for the Court cannot mean that the case would have come out differently if none of the Seventh-day Adventists in Spartanburg had been gainfully employed, or if the appellant's religion had prevented her from working on Tuesdays instead of Saturdays. Nor can the Court be suggesting that it will make a value judgment in each case as to whether a particular individual's religious convictions prevent him from being 'productive.' I can think of no more inappropriate function for this Court to perform.

^3  The Court's reliance on South Carolina Code, § 64-4, ante, p. 406, to support its conclusion with respect to free exercise, is misplaced. Section 64-4, which is not a part of the Unemployment Compensation Law, is an extremely narrow provision that becomes operative only during periods of national emergency and thus has no bearing in the circumstances of the present case. And plainly under our decisions in the 'Sunday law' cases, appellant can derive no support for her position from the State's general statutory provisions setting aside Sunday as a uniform day of rest.

^4  Since the Court states, ante, p. 410, that it does not reach the appellant's 'equal protection' argument, based upon South Carolina's emergency Sunday-work provisions, §§ 64-4, 64-6, I do not consider it appropriate for me to do so.

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).