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In Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida, 480 U.S. 136 (1987), the Supreme Court invalidated a ruling by the state’s Appeals Commission denying unemployment benefits to an individual on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.

Hobbie fired, denied benefits after refusing to work on Sabbath

Paula Hobbie was fired from her job at a jewelry company after she informed the company that she had become a Seventh-day Adventist and could no longer work from sundown on Friday to sundown Saturday. The Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security subsequently denied Hobbie’s claims for benefits, and the Unemployment Appeals Commission subsequently agreed that her refusal to work on the Sabbath constituted “misconduct connected with [her] work.”

Court had upheld benefits in similar cases

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote the Court’s majority opinion, which focused on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. He argued that the case was controlled by earlier rulings in Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division (1981).

In Sherbert, the Court had upheld unemployment payments to a Seventh-day Adventist who had lost her job in South Carolina, and in Thomas, it had upheld such benefits to a Jehovah’s Witness who was fired for refusing to produce armaments. Brennan said that both cases demonstrated that state-imposed burdens on religious exercises required “strict scrutiny” on the part of the Court and could only be justified by the showing of “a compelling interest.” Brennan argued that the Court had specifically rejected the application of a less rigorous standard to such cases in Bowen v. Roy (1986).

Court said denial of benefits violated First Amendment

Brennan rejected Florida’s attempts to distinguish this case from earlier precedents. Although the state’s burden was less than that imposed by South Carolina, Brennan noted, “The immediate effects of ineligibility and disqualification are identical, and the disqualification penalty is substantial.” It was irrelevant whether Hobbie entered employment with a religious conviction or converted after beginning work.

The Court’s decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), with regard to public education for Amish students, further established that the Court’s accommodation of religious beliefs did not constitute an establishment of religion or entangle church and state. Such accommodation simply provided for governmental neutrality.

Scholars continue to debate the impact that the Court’s decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), which abandoned the compelling state interest test, will have on decisions like Sherbert and Hobbie.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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