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Court’s Ruling in Peyote Case Seen As Dangerous to Religious Minorities

April 19, 1990
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow the prosecution of American Indians who use illegal drugs in religious rituals is “outrageous” and “troubling,” the American Jewish Congress said Wednesday.

Mark Pelavin, the group’s Washington representative, said the 6-3 ruling Tuesday shows a “very troubling lack of concern for minority religions.”

The court said that two members of an American Indian church could not be exempted from an Oregon law that makes it a crime to possess or use peyote, even though they used it only for sacramental purposes.

AJCongress had filed a brief in support of the Indians, who had been denied unemployment benefits by Oregon after they were fired from their jobs for using peyote.

“I think the decision is a very troubling omen of how the court will treat the rights of religious minorities,” Pelavin said. “It suggests that the First Amendment free-exercise clause offers no protection in cases such as this.”

The Oregon Supreme Court had ruled that the First Amendment’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion required that the two men be exempted from the Oregon law.

But Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the Supreme Court’s majority decision, said such an exemption was not required by the First Amendment, although the state legislature could provide such an exemption. Federal law and laws in 23 states exempt the sacramental use of peyote from criminal penalties.

“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,” Scalia said.


But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted with the majority, nevertheless disagreed with Scalia’s opinion, which she called “incompatible with our nation’s fundamental commitment to individual religious liberty.”

O’Connor argued in a separate opinion that “if the First Amendment is to have any vitality, it ought not to be construed to cover only the extreme and hypothetical situation in which a state directly targets a religious practice.”

Dissenting from the court’s majority opinion were Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall.

Pelavin said Scalia’s opinion misunderstands the role of the free-exercise clause in the Constitution. “This is a case which poses a conflict between a state law and religious belief,” he said.

“What’s troubling is the court’s suggestion that in such a conflict, the First Amendment is all but inapplicable, and the only recourse available is to the legislature.”

The court’s ruling in the case, Employment Division vs. Smith, was the second time in recent years that American Indians have lost a religious rights case in the Supreme Court, Pelavin said.

AJCongress also supported the Indians in Lying vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. In that case, the court ruled 5-3 that the government could build a road through a part of a national forest in California held sacred by three Indian tribes.

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