THOMAS V. REVIEW BD., IND. EMPL. SEC. DIV., 450 U. S. 707 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981)

Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana

Employment Security Division

No. 79-952

Argued October 7, 1980

Decided April 6, 1981

450 U.S. 707


Petitioner, a Jehovah's Witness, was initially hired to work in his employer's roll foundry, which fabricated sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses, but when the foundry was closed, he was transferred to a department that fabricated turrets for military tanks. Since all of the employer's remaining departments to which transfer might have been sought were engaged directly in the production of weapons, petitioner asked to be laid off. When that request was denied, he quit, asserting that his religious beliefs prevented him from participating in the production of weapons. He applied for unemployment compensation benefits under the Indiana Employment Security Act, and testified at an administrntive hearing that he believed that contributing to the production of arms violated his religion, although he could, in good conscience, engage indirectly in the production of materials that might be used ultimately to fabricate arms. The hearing referee found that petitioner had terminated his employment because of his religious convictions, but held that petitioner was not entitled to benefits because his voluntary termination was not based upon a "good cause [arising] in connection with [his] work," as required by the Indiana statute. Respondent Review Board affirmed, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Indiana statute, as applied, improperly burdened petitioner's right to the free exercise of his religion. The Indiana Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals' decision and denied petitioner benefits, holding that he had quit voluntarily for personal reasons, his belief being more "personal philosophical choice" than religious belief. The court also concluded that, in any event, a termination motivated by religion is not for "good cause" objectively related to the work, as required by the Indiana statute, and that denying benefits created only an indirect burden on petitioner's free exercise right, which burden was justified by legitimate state interests.

Held: The State's denial of unemployment compensation benefits to petitioner violated his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion under Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398. Pp. 450 U. S. 713-720.

(a) The Indiana Supreme Court improperly relied on the facts that petitioner was "struggling" with his beliefs and that he was not able

Page 450 U. S. 708

to "articulate" his belief precisely. Courts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs on such grounds. The Indiana court also erred in apparently giving significant weight to the fact that another Jehovah's Witness with whom petitioner consulted had no scruples about working on tank turrets. The guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect. The narrow function of a reviewing court in this context is to determine whether there was an appropriate finding that petitioner terminated his work because such work was forbidden by his religion. The record shows that petitioner terminated his employment for religious reasons. Pp. 450 U. S. 713-716.

(b) A person may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program. It is true that the Indiana law does not compel a violation of conscience, but where the state conditions receipt of an important benefit upon conduct proscribed by a religious faith, or where it denies such a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs, a burden upon religion exists. While the compulsion may be indirect, the infringement upon free exercise is nonetheless substnntial. Pp. 450 U. S. 716-718.

(c) The state may justify an inroad on religious liberty by showing that it is the least restrictive means of achieving some compelling state interest. However, when the inquiry is properly narrowed to focus only on the threat to state interests, neither of the purposes urged to sustain the disqualifying provision of the Indiana statute -- to avoid the widespread unemployment and consequent burden on the fund resulting if people were permitted to leave jobs for "personal" reasons and to avoid a detailed probing by employers into job applicants' religious beliefs -- is sufficiently compelling to justify the burden upon petitioner's religious liberty. Pp. 450 U. S. 718-719.

(d) Payment of benefits to petitioner would not involve the State in fostering a religious faith in violation of the Establishment Clause. The extension of benefits reflects no more than the governmental obligation of neutrality, and does not represent that involvement of religious with secular institutions which it is the object of the Establishment Clause to forestall. Pp. 450 U. S. 719-720.

271 Ind. ___, 391 N. E. 2d 1127, reversed.

BURGER, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II, and III of which BLACKMUN, J., joined. BLACKMUN, J.,

Page 450 U. S. 709

filed a statement concurring in part and concurring in the result, post, p. 450 U. S. 720. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 720.

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