Thomas v. Review Board, Indiana Employment Security Division

450 U.S. 707

Case Year: 1981

Case Ruling: 8-1, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Burger

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, O'Connor, Powell, Stevens, White


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Rehnquist


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Eddie Thomas was hired by the Blaw-Knox Foundry & Machine Company and initially assigned to the roll foundry that fabricated steel sheets for a variety of industrial uses. On his employment application Thomas indicated that he was a Jehovah's Witness and engaged in various church activities. He did not describe his religious beliefs in detail, nor did he indicate any work activities in which he could not engage because of religious belief. After working for the company for about a year, Thomas was transferred to the department that manufactured turrets for military tanks when the roll foundry closed.. He inquired about other positions with the company after he realized that his job involved the creation of military weapons, but there were none that did not involve military production at that time. Citing his religious beliefs as being in conflict with weapons production, Thomas quit.

Upon leaving the company, he applied for unemployment compensation. An administrative judge, later supported by the full Review Board, concluded that Thomas's religious beliefs precluded him from engaging in the production of military weapons and that he had left his job because of his religious convictions. However, these reasons did not qualify Thomas for benefits under the Indiana unemployment compensation program. An appeals court reversed this decision, but the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated it. The state high court found that Thomas left his position for personal reasons rather than for a good cause arising in connection with his work. In doing so, Thomas did not qualify for unemployment benefits under state law. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.



We granted certiorari to consider whether the State's denial of unemployment compensation benefits to the petitioner, a Jehovah's Witness who terminated his job because his religious beliefs forbade participation in the production of armaments, constituted a violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion....

The judgment under review must be examined in light of our prior decisions, particularly Sherbert v. Verner (1963)....

Only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause, which, by its terms, gives special protection to the exercise of religion. Sherbert v. Verner; Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). The determination of what is a "religious" belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task, as the division in the Indiana Supreme Court attests. However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection....

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 of an honest conviction that such work was forbidden by his religion. Not surprisingly, the record before the referee and the Review Board was not made with an eye to the microscopic examination often exercised in appellate judicial review. However, judicial review is confined to the facts as found and conclusions drawn. On this record, it is clear that Thomas terminated his employment for religious reasons.

More than 30 years ago, the Court held that a person may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program. A state may not

"exclude individual Catholics, Lutherans, Mohammedans, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Non-believers, Presbyterians, or the members of any other faith, because of their faith, or lack of it, from receiving the benefits of public welfare legislation." Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

Later, in Sherbert the Court examined South Carolina's attempt to deny unemployment compensation benefits to a Sabbatarian who declined to work on Saturday. In sustaining her right to receive benefits, the Court held:

"The ruling [disqualifying Mrs. Sherbert from benefits because of her refusal to work on Saturday in violation of her faith] forces her to choose between following the precepts of her religion and forfeiting benefits, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of her religion in order to accept work, on the other hand. Governmental imposition of such a choice puts the same kind of burden upon the free exercise of religion as would a fine imposed against [her] for her Saturday worship."

The respondent Review Board argues, and the Indiana Supreme Court held, that the burden upon religion here is only the indirect consequence of public welfare legislation that the State clearly has authority to enact.... A similar argument was made and rejected in Sherbert, however. It is true that, as in Sherbert, the Indiana law does not compel a violation of conscience. But, "this is only the beginning, not the end, of our inquiry." In a variety of ways we have said that "[a] regulation neutral on its face may, in its application, nonetheless offend the constitutional requirement for governmental neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion." Wisconsin v. Yoder.

Here, as in Sherbert, the employee was put to a choice between fidelity to religious belief or cessation of work; the coercive impact on Thomas is indistinguishable from Sherbert, where the Court held:

"[N]ot only is it apparent that appellant's declared ineligibility for benefits derives solely from the practice of her religion, but the pressure upon her to forego that practice is unmistakable."

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 substantial....

The mere fact that the petitioner's religious practice is burdened by a governmental program does not mean that an exemption accommodating his practice must be granted. 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, it is still true that "[t]he essence of all that has been said and written on the subject is that only those interests of the highest order ... can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion." Wisconsin v. Yoder.

The purposes urged to sustain the disqualifying provision of the Indiana unemployment compensation scheme are two-fold: (1) to avoid the widespread unemployment and the consequent burden on the fund resulting if people were permitted to leave jobs for "personal" reasons; and (2) to avoid a detailed probing by employers into job applicants' religious beliefs. These are by no means unimportant considerations. When the focus of the inquiry is properly narrowed, however, we must conclude that the interests advanced by the State do not justify the burden placed on free exercise of religion.

There is no evidence in the record to indicate that the number of people who find themselves in the predicament of choosing between benefits and religious beliefs is large enough to create "widespread unemployment," or even to seriously affect unemployment--and no such claim was advanced by the Review Board. Similarly, although detailed inquiry by employers into applicants' religious beliefs is undesirable, there is no evidence in the record to indicate that such inquiries will occur in Indiana, or that they have occurred in any of the states that extend benefits to people in the petitioner's position. Nor is there any reason to believe that the number of people terminating employment for religious reasons will be so great as to motivate employers to make such inquiries.

Neither of the interests advanced is sufficiently compelling to justify the burden upon Thomas' religious liberty. Accordingly, Thomas is entitled to receive benefits unless, as the respondents contend and the Indiana court held, such payment would violate the Establishment Clause.

The respondents contend that to compel benefit payments to Thomas involves the State in fostering a religious faith. There is, in a sense, a "benefit" to Thomas deriving from his religious beliefs, but this manifests no more than the tension between the two Religious Clauses which the Court resolved in Sherbert:

"In holding as we do, plainly we are not fostering the 'establishment' of the Seventh-day Adventist religion in South Carolina, for the extension of unemployment benefits to Sabbatarians in common with Sunday worshippers reflects nothing more than the governmental obligation of neutrality in the face of religious differences, and does not represent that involvement of religious with secular institutions which it is the object of the Establishment Clause to forestall."...

Unless we are prepared to overrule Sherbert Thomas cannot be denied the benefits due him on the basis of the findings of the referee, the Review Board, and the Indiana Court of Appeals that he terminated his employment because of his religious convictions.


JUSTICE BLACKMUN joins [the opinion of the Court except for the portion included in the final three paragraphs of the above excerpt].


The Court today holds that the State of Indiana is constitutionally required to provide direct financial assistance to a person solely on the basis of his religious beliefs. Because I believe that the decision today adds mud to the already muddied waters of First Amendment jurisprudence, I dissent....

Just as it did in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Court today reads the Free Exercise Clause more broadly than is warranted. As to the proper interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause, I would accept the decision of Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), and the dissent in Sherbert. In Braunfeld, we held that Sunday closing laws do not violate the First Amendment rights of Sabbatarians. Chief Justice Warren explained that the statute did not make unlawful any religious practices of appellants; it simply made the practice of their religious beliefs more expensive. We concluded that "[t]o strike down, without the most critical scrutiny, legislation which imposes only an indirect burden on the exercise of religion, i.e. legislation which does not make unlawful the religious practice itself, would radically restrict the operating latitude of the legislature." Likewise in this case, it cannot be said that the State discriminated against Thomas on the basis of his religious beliefs or that he was denied benefits because he was a Jehovah's Witness. Where, as here, a State has enacted a general statute, the purpose and effect of which is to advance the State's secular goals, the Free Exercise Clause does not in my view require the State to conform that statute to the dictates of religious conscience of any group. As Justice Harlan recognized in his dissent inSherbert v. Verner: "Those situations in which the Constitution may require special treatment on account of religion are ... few and far between."... Like him I believe that although a State could choose to grant exemptions to religious persons from state unemployment regulations, a State is not constitutionally compelled to do so....

The Court's treatment of the Establishment Clause issue is equally unsatisfying. Although today's decision requires a State to provide direct financial assistance to persons solely on the basis of their religious beliefs, the Court nonetheless blandly assures us, just as it did in Sherbert, that its decision "plainly" does not foster the "establishment" of religion.... I would agree that the Establishment Clause, properly interpreted, would not be violated if Indiana voluntarily chose to grant unemployment benefits to those persons who left their jobs for religious reasons. But I also believe that the decision below is inconsistent with many of our prior Establishment Clause cases. Those cases, if faithfully applied, would require us to hold that such voluntary action by a State did violate the Establishment Clause.

JUSTICE STEWART noted this point in his concurring opinion in Sherbert. He observed that decisions like Sherbert, and the one rendered today, squarely conflict with the more extreme language of many of our prior Establishment Clause cases....

In recent years the Court has moved away from the mechanistic "no-aid-to-religion" approach to the Establishment Clause and has stated a three-part test to determine the constitutionality of governmental aid to religion. See Lemon v. Kurtzman(1971); Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973). First, the statute must serve a secular legislative purpose. Second, it must have a "primary effect" that neither advances nor inhibits religion. And third, the State and its administration must avoid excessive entanglement with religion.... It is not surprising that the Court today makes no attempt to apply those principles to the facts of this case. If Indiana were to legislate what the Court today requires--an unemployment compensation law which permitted benefits to be granted to those persons who quit their jobs for religious reasons--the statute would "plainly" violate the Establishment Clause as interpreted in such cases as Lemon and Nyquist. First, although the unemployment statute as a whole would be enacted to serve a secular legislative purpose, the proviso would clearly serve only a religious purpose. It would grant financial benefits for the sole purpose of accommodating religious beliefs. Second, there can be little doubt that the primary effect of the proviso would be to "advance" religion by facilitating the exercise of religious belief. Third, any statute including such a proviso would surely "entangle" the State in religion far more than the mere grant of tax exemptions, as in Walz, or the award of tuition grants and tax credits, as inNyquist. By granting financial benefits to persons solely on the basis of their religious beliefs, the State must necessarily inquire whether the claimant's belief is "religious" and whether it is sincerely held. Otherwise any dissatisfied employee may leave his job without cause and claim that he did so because his own particular beliefs required it. It is unclear from the Court's opinion whether it has temporarily retreated from its expansive view of the Establishment Clause, or wholly abandoned it. I would welcome the latter....

In sum, my difficulty with today's decision is that it reads the Free Exercise Clause too broadly and it fails to squarely acknowledge that such a reading conflicts with many of our Establishment Clause cases.... Accordingly, I would affirm the judgment of the Indiana Supreme Court.