Freedom of Religion – Part 1

Church Law and Tax 1990-01-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1990-01-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

The United States Supreme Court ruled that an individual whose personal religious convictions prevented him from working on Sundays was eligible for unemployment benefits even though he refused a retail job that would have required him to work on Sundays. A state unemployment agency rejected the individual’s claim for benefits, citing a state law denying benefits to any individual who fails to “accept work when offered him.” The individual sued, arguing that as a Christian he could not work on “the Lord’s day,” and that the agency’s denial of unemployment benefits violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. A state appeals court rejected these claims, concluding that the individual’s refusal to work was based on personal religious convictions rather than upon “a tenet or dogma of an established religious sect.” The case was appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that the state agency had acted improperly in denying the individual’s request for benefits. The Court acknowledged that it previously had recognized that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom prevented unemployment benefits from being denied to persons whose refusal to work on Sundays (or the Sabbath) was based on the tenets or dogma of an established religious sect. However, it emphasized that religious convictions of a personal nature are just as entitled to constitutional protection as religious convictions based on recognized creed or dogma, and accordingly that a state cannot deny unemployment benefits to a person whose refusal to accept a job requiring Sunday work is based on personal religious convictions. The Court warned that only sincerely held religious beliefs are entitled to protection under the constitution, and that a court was not required to accept at face value the sincerity of a professed religious belief. It further observed: “Undoubtedly, membership in an organized religious denomination, especially one with a specific tenet forbidding members to work on Sunday, would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held religious beliefs, but we reject the notion that to claim the protection of the free exercise [of religion] clause one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization. Here, [the individual’s] refusal was based on a sincerely held religious belief. Under our cases, he was entitled to [constitutional] protection.” The Court further observed that constitutional rights, including the free exercise of one’s religion, are not absolute. They can be abridged by state action so long as a “compelling state interest” exists. But no such interest was articulated in this case, the Court concluded. Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security, 109 S. Ct. 1514 (1989).

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