In 1983, in Oregon, two men were fired from their jobs as substance abuse counselors after they were discovered to be taking peyote. The drug counselors applied for unemployment benefits, but the state rejected their claim, citing work-related misconduct as taking peyote is illegal in Oregon. But the men were both members of the Native American Church, where peyote is used in religious ceremony, and the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the decision, stating that to deny the men unemployment benefits based on the religious use of a controlled substance violated the men’s First Amendment right to free expression of religion.
Oregon appealed, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. The final 5-4 decision, in 1990, ruled in favor of the state and against religion. Simply put, the court said, if people are allowed to pull the God card when they break a law, absolute anarchy awaits everyone. “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” the decision read.
It’s difficult to imagine Justice Scalia would have felt the same had the case involved something like underage Catholics drinking wine at communion rather than Native Americans using peyote. The Smith decision was widely decried as a devastating blow to First Amendment rights and jolted all sides of the political spectrum into action. As a response, in 1993, New York Democratic congressman Chuck Schumer introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Read More