Sherbert v. Verner: Case, Arguments, Impact

Can a state restrict an individual's right to free religious exercise?

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In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Supreme Court ruled that a state must have a compelling interest and demonstrate that a law is narrowly tailored in order to restrict an individual's right to free exercise under the First Amendment. The Court's analysis became known as the Sherbert Test.

Key Takeaways: Sherbert v. Verner (1963)

  • Adell Sherbert was denied unemployment compensation because she refused to work on Saturdays, a religious day of rest for Seventh Day Adventists.
  • In Sherbert v. Verner (1963) the Supreme Court found that the South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act burdened Sherbert's religious freedoms.
  • Sherbert v. Verner developed the Sherbert Test for analyzing the constitutionality of laws that might burden an individual's right to free exercise of religion.
  • In order to burden religious freedoms, a state must show a compelling interest and ensure that the law is narrowly tailored.

Facts of the Case

Adell Sherbert was both a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and a textile-mill operator. Her religion and workplace came into conflict when her employer asked her to work on Saturday, a religious day of rest. Sherbert refused and was fired. After having difficulty finding another job that did not require work on Saturdays, Sherbert applied for unemployment benefits through the South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act. Eligibility for these benefits was based on two prongs:

  1. The person is able to work and available for work.
  2. The person has not rejected available and suitable work.

The Employment Security Commission found that Sherbert did not qualify for the benefits because she had proved she was not “available” by rejecting jobs that required her to work on Saturdays. Sherbert appealed the decision on the basis that denying her benefits violated her freedoms to practice her religion. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.

Constitutional Issues

Did the state violate Sherbert’s First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights when it denied unemployment benefits?

Arguments

Attorneys on behalf of Sherbert argued that the unemployment law infringed upon her First Amendment right to freedom of exercise. Under South Carolina’s Unemployment Compensation Act, Sherbert could not receive unemployment benefits if she refused to work on Saturdays, a religious day of rest. Denying benefits unreasonably burdened Sherbert, according to her attorneys.

Attorneys on behalf of the State of South Carolina argued that the language of the Unemployment Compensation Act did not discriminate against Sherbert. The Act did not directly prevent Sherbert from receiving benefits because she was a Seventh Day Adventist. Instead, the Act barred Sherbert from receiving benefits because she was not available to work. The state had an interest in ensuring that those receiving unemployment benefits were open and willing to work when a job was made available to them.

Majority Opinion

Justice William Brennan delivered the majority opinion. In a 7-2 decision, the Court found that South Carolina’s Unemployment Compensation Act was unconstitutional because it indirectly burdened Sherbert’s ability to exercise her religious freedoms.

Justice Brennan wrote:

“The ruling 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 appellant for her Saturday worship.”

Through this opinion, the Court created the Sherbert Test to determine whether government acts infringe upon religious freedoms.

The Sherbert test has three prongs:

  1. The Court must decide whether the act burdens the individual’s religious freedoms. A burden can be anything from withholding benefits to imposing penalties for religious practice.
  2. The government may still “burden” an individual’s right to free exercise of religion if:
    1. The government can show a compelling interest to justify the intrusion
    2. The government must also show that it cannot achieve this interest without burdening the individual’s freedoms. Any government intrusion on an individual’s first amendment freedoms must be narrowly tailored.

Together, "compelling interest" and "narrowly tailored" are key requirements for strict scrutiny, a type of judicial analysis applied to cases where a law may be infringing on individual freedoms.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Harlan and Justice White dissented, arguing that the state is required to act with neutrality when legislating. The South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act was neutral in that it offered equal opportunity to access unemployment benefits. According to the Justices, it is within the state’s interest to provide unemployment benefits to help people looking for work. It is also within the state’s interest to restrict benefits from people if they refuse to take available jobs.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Harlan wrote that it would be unfair to allow Sherbert to access unemployment benefits when she is unavailable for work due to religious reasons if the state prevents others from accessing the same benefits for non-religious reasons. The state would show preferential treatment to people who practice certain religions. This violated the concept of neutrality that states should strive to achieve.

Impact

Sherbert v. Verner established the Sherbert Test as a judicial tool for analyzing state burdens on religious freedoms. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Supreme Court limited the scope of the test. Under that decision, the Court ruled that the test could not be applied to laws that were generally applicable, but might incidentally hinder religious freedoms. Instead, the test should be used when a law discriminates against religions or is enforced in a discriminatory way. The Supreme Court still applies the Sherbert test in the latter. For example, the Supreme Court used the Sherbert test to analyze policies in the case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014).

Sources

  • Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963).
  • Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
  • Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ___ (2014).