IFAS | Freedom Writer | April/May/June 1990 | court.html

Court strikes a blow to
religious freedom

In a blow to Native Americans whose religious traditions predate the U.S. Constitution the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on April 17, that there is no constitutional right to use peyote as part of religious rituals. Peyote, which contains the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, is a central part of Indian religious ritual. The federal government and 23 states permit peyote to be used for that purpose.

The Supreme Court case involved two Oregon men, Galen W. Black and Alfred C. Smith, who were denied unemployment benefits after they were fired from their jobs at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. They were fired because they ingested peyote at a ceremony of the Native American Church, of which they were members.

In rejecting the men's claim that Oregon's law barring peyote use under all circumstances violates their religious freedom, Justice Antonin Scalia, in writing for the majority, said that the First Amendment freedom of religion does not allow individuals t o break the law: "We have never held that an individual's beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate." He said it would be "courting anarchy" to create exceptions every time a reli gious group claims that a law infringes on its practices.

The dissenting justices, William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Harry A. Blackmun, called the decision "sweeping" and "a wholesale overturning of settled law concerning the religion clauses in our Constitution." The three dissenters were joined by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in one aspect of their opinion. The four agreed that the majority's approach "dramatically departs from well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence...and is incompatible with our nation's fundamental commitment to individual re ligious liberty."

They added, "a law that prohibits certain conduct conduct that happens to be an act of worship for someone manifestly does prohibit that person's free exercise of his religion." Although 0'Connor concurred with this aspect of the minority opinion, she felt that the state of Oregon did have a compelling interest in curbing drug use, and therefore voted with the majority.

Blackmun disagreed and said that the Oregon law was not supported by a compelling government interest. "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 narco tics that plagues this country." In fact, between 1980 and 1987, only 19.4 pounds of peyote were seized by federal authorities, compared to more than 15 million pounds of marijuana during the same period. Blackmun argued that a single exemption for the re ligious use of peyote by Native Americans was constitutionally required.

Although the decision dealt specifically with one kind of religious ritual eating peyote as a religious rite among members of the Native American Church the Court's decision has sweeping implications for other church/state cases. Other religious ritua ls, such as the consumption of wine by minors as part of Jewish and Christian tradition; the Amish's refusal to use reflectors on their horse-drawn vehicles; religions whose theology requires abortion in some circumstances; religions, such as Christian Sc ientists, who withhold medical care from their children; or religions that advocate severe physical punishment as a method for raising children, will no doubt be affected by the Court's decision.

The Christian practice of drinking Christ's blood, in the form of wine, is part of the rite of Holy Communion. Churches are allowed to serve wine, even to minors, without a license to serve alcohol. There is a Jewish tradition of drinking wine on the Sabb ath and holidays. If the Court reasoned this way during Prohibition, it could have prohibited the use of wine for Holy Communion, the Jewish Sabbath, and Passover Seders.

Using the peyote decision as its precedent, on April 23, the Supreme Court set aside a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that exempted the Amish from compliance with a highway safety law. The Old Order Amish, in its desire to avoid the modern world as much as possible, travel in black horse-drawn buggies. They have traditionally refused to obey a state law which requires slow-moving vehicles to be marked with red reflector triangles. In 1988, Minnesota tried and convicted the Amish for failure to obey the law. However, the state Supreme Court said the state placed an unconstitutional burden on the free exercise of religion.

The state then appealed to the Supreme Court. The state was represented by the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. The Supreme Court deferred action on the Minnesota case until it decided the peyote case, then issued no opinion. Instead, the Court voted 7-2 to order the Minnesota court to reconsider the Amish case, in light of the Supreme Court ruling on peyote. In the peyote case, the Court ruled that a state doesn't need "compelling" interest before it enforces its criminal laws in a way that puts a burden on particular religious groups. The door has now been left wide open for the Minnesota court to reverse itself in its case against the Amish.

In the U.S. territory of Guam, lawyers for abortion rights groups have been preparing a "religious liberty" challenge to Guam's sweeping new criminal anti-abortion law. These lawyers will argue that some religious denominations hold that, in some circumst ances, abortion maybe a religious duty. So, to criminalize abortion would infringe on the rights of those who consider abortion a religious duty. Following the Court's reasoning in the peyote case, Guam would not need a compelling interest before it enfor ces its criminal laws in a way that puts a burden on particular religious groups.

The peyote ruling is also likely to strengthen the power of prosecutors to pursue criminal child abuse charges against parents who, for religious reasons, withhold medical care from their children or use severe physical punishment.

Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and Time.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.