From the Right



Schumer and Pelosi Would Deny Americans Freedom of Conscience

Terence P. Jeffrey on

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were ferocious advocates of religious freedom -- when the question revolved around consuming peyote.

In the 1980s, as the Supreme Court's summary would later explain in the case of Employment Division v. Smith, a "private drug rehabilitation organization" in Oregon fired two employees "because they ingested peyote."

These employees, however, did not ingest the drug for recreational purposes. They did it, the court's summary explained, "for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of their Native American Church."

Even so, Oregon denied the two unemployment payments "under a state law disqualifying employees discharged for work-related 'misconduct.'"

The issue for the Supreme Court: Was Oregon violating the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion?

In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court ruled it was not.


"We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate," the court stated.

"Subsequent decisions have consistently held that the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a 'valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes)," said the court.

"Because respondents' ingestion of peyote was prohibited under Oregon law," the court concluded, "and because that prohibition is constitutional, Oregon may, consistent with the Free Exercise Clause, deny respondents unemployment compensation when their dismissal results from use of the drug."

This decision alarmed both conservatives and liberals. If the government could prohibit peyote even for use in a recognized religious ritual, what could it not prohibit in the exercise of religion?


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