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First Amendment Library:
Dave Frohnmayer


Respondents Smith and Black were fired by a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of their Native American Church. Their applications for unemployment compensation were denied by the State of Oregon under a state law disqualifying employees discharged for work-related "misconduct." Holding that the denials violated respondents' First Amendment free exercise rights, the State Court of Appeals reversed. The State Supreme Court affirmed, but this Court vacated the judgment and remanded for a determination whether sacramental peyote use is proscribed by the State's controlled substance law, which makes it a felony to knowingly or intentionally possess the drug. Pending that determination, the Court refused to decide whether such use is protected by the Constitution. On remand, the State Supreme Court held that sacramental peyote use violated, and was not excepted from, the state law prohibition, but concluded that that prohibition was invalid under the Free Exercise Clause.


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 *662 proper as a matter of Oregon law, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution.[1] 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.[2] 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.