In The

Supreme Court of the United States

Department of Human Resources of Oregon



Decided April 17, 1990

Justice O’Connor, Concurring

Topic: First Amendment*Court vote: 6–3
Note: No other Justices joined this opinion in full.
Joining opinion in part: Justice BLACKMUN Justice BLACKMUN Justice BRENNAN Justice BRENNAN Justice MARSHALL Justice MARSHALL
Citation: 494 U.S. 872 Docket: 88–1213Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez

* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database

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Justice O'CONNOR, with whom Justice BRENNAN, Justice MARSHALL, and Justice BLACKMUN join as to Parts I and II, concurring in the judgment.*

Although I agree with the result the Court reaches in this case, I cannot join its opinion. In my view, today's holding dramatically departs from well settled First Amendment jurisprudence, appears unnecessary to resolve the question presented, and is incompatible with our Nation's fundamental commitment to individual religious liberty.


At the outset, I note that I agree with the Court's implicit determination that the constitutional question upon which we granted review -whether the Free Exercise Clause protects a person's religiously motivated use of peyote from the reach of a State's general criminal law prohibition -is properly presented in this case. As the Court recounts, respondents Alfred Smith and Galen Black were denied unemployment compensation benefits because their sacramental use of peyote constituted work-related "misconduct," not because they violated Oregon's general criminal prohibition against possession of peyote. We held, however, in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 485 U. S. 660 (1988) ( Smith I ), that whether a State may, consistent with federal law, deny unemployment compensation benefits to persons for their religious use of peyote depends on whether the State, as a matter of state law, has criminalized the underlying conduct. See id. at 485 U. S. 670 -672. The Oregon Supreme Court, on remand from this Court, concluded that "the Oregon statute against possession of controlled substances, which include peyote, makes no exception for the sacramental use of peyote." 307 Or. 68, 72-73, 763 P.2d 146, 148 (1988) (footnote omitted).

Respondents contend that, because the Oregon Supreme Court declined to decide whether the Oregon Constitution prohibits criminal prosecution for the religious use of peyote, see id. at 73, n. 3, 763 P.2d at 148, n. 3, any ruling on the federal constitutional question would be premature. Respondents are of course correct that the Oregon Supreme Court may eventually decide that the Oregon Constitution requires the State to provide an exemption from its general criminal prohibition for the religious use of peyote. Such a decision would then reopen the question whether a State may nevertheless deny unemployment compensation benefits to claimants who are discharged for engaging in such conduct. As the case comes to us today, however, the Oregon Supreme Court has plainly ruled that Oregon's prohibition against possession of controlled substances does not contain an exemption for the religious use of peyote. In light of our decision in Smith I, which makes this finding a "necessary predicate to a correct evaluation of respondents' federal claim," 485 U.S. at 485 U. S. 672, the question presented and addressed is properly before the Court.


The Court today extracts from our long history of free exercise precedents the single categorical rule that

if prohibiting the exercise of religion... is... merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended.

Ante at 494 U. S. 878 (citations omitted). Indeed, the Court holds that, where the law is a generally applicable criminal prohibition, our usual free exercise jurisprudence does not even apply. Ante at 494 U. S. 884. To reach this sweeping result, however, the Court must not only give a strained reading of the First Amendment but must also disregard our consistent application of free exercise doctrine to cases involving generally applicable regulations that burden religious conduct.


The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment commands that "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." In Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296 (1940), we held that this prohibition applies to the States by incorporation into the Fourteenth Amendment and that it categorically forbids government regulation of religious beliefs. Id. at 310 U. S. 303. As the Court recognizes, however, the "free exercise" of religion often, if not invariably, requires the performance of (or abstention from) certain acts. Ante at 494 U. S. 877 ; cf. 3 A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles 401-402 (J. Murray, ed. 1897) (defining "exercise" to include "[t]he practice and performance of rites and ceremonies, worship, etc.; the right or permission to celebrate the observances (of a religion)" and religious observances such as acts of public and private worship, preaching, and prophesying). "[B]elief and action cannot be neatly confined in logic-tight compartments." Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205, 406 U. S. 220 (1972). Because the First Amendment does not distinguish between religious belief and religious conduct, conduct motivated by sincere religious belief, like the belief itself, must therefore be at least presumptively protected by the Free Exercise Clause.

The Court today, however, interprets the Clause to permit the government to prohibit, without justification, conduct mandated by an individual's religious beliefs, so long as that prohibition is generally applicable. Ante at 494 U. S.. But a law that prohibits certain conduct -conduct that happens to be an act of worship for someone -manifestly does prohibit that person's free exercise of his religion. A person who is barred from engaging in religiously motivated conduct is barred from freely exercising his religion. Moreover, that person is barred from freely exercising his religion regardless of whether the law prohibits the conduct only when engaged in for religious reasons, only by members of that religion, or by all persons. It is difficult to deny that a law that prohibits religiously motivated conduct, even if the law is generally applicable, does not at least implicate First Amendment concerns.

The Court responds that generally applicable laws are "one large step" removed from laws aimed at specific religious practices. Ibid. The First Amendment, however, does not distinguish between laws that are generally applicable and laws that target particular religious practices. Indeed, few States would be so naive as to enact a law directly prohibiting or burdening a religious practice as such. Our free exercise cases have all concerned generally applicable laws that had the effect of significantly burdening a religious practice. If the First Amendment is to have any vitality, it ought not be construed to cover only the extreme and hypothetical situation in which a State directly targets a religious practice. As we have noted in a slightly different context,

'[s]uch a test has no basis in precedent and relegates a serious First Amendment value to the barest level of minimum scrutiny that the Equal Protection Clause already provides.'

Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Florida, 480 U. S. 136, 480 U. S. 141 -142 (1987) (quoting Bowen v. Roy, 476 U. S. 693, 476 U. S. 727 (1986) (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part)).

To say that a person's right to free exercise has been burdened, of course, does not mean that he has an absolute right to engage in the conduct. Under our established First Amendment jurisprudence, we have recognized that the freedom to act, unlike the freedom to believe, cannot be absolute. See, e.g., Cantwell, supra, 310 U.S. at 310 U. S. 304 ; Reynolds v. United States, 98 U. S. 145, 98 U. S. 161 -167. Instead, we have respected both the First Amendment's express textual mandate and the governmental interest in regulation of conduct by requiring the Government to justify any substantial burden on religiously motivated conduct by a compelling state interest and by means narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. See Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U. S. 680, 490 U. S. 699 (1989); Hobbie, supra, 480 U.S. at 480 U. S. 141 ; United States v. Lee, 455 U. S. 252, 455 U. S. 257 -258 (1982); Thomas v. Review Bd., Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U. S. 707, 450 U. S. 718 (1981); McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U. S. 618, 435 U. S. 626 -629 (1978) (plurality opinion); Yoder, supra, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 215 ; Gillette v. United States, 401 U. S. 437, 401 U. S. 462 (1971); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398, 374 U. S. 403 (1963); see also Bowen v. Roy, supra, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 732 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part); West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 319 U. S. 639 (1943). The compelling interest test effectuates the First Amendment's command that religious liberty is an independent liberty, that it occupies a preferred position, and that the Court will not permit encroachments upon this liberty, whether direct or indirect, unless required by clear and compelling governmental interests "of the highest order," Yoder, supra, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 215.

Only an especially important governmental interest pursued by narrowly tailored means can justify exacting a sacrifice of First Amendment freedoms as the price for an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens.

Roy, supra, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 728 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part).

The Court attempts to support its narrow reading of the Clause by claiming that

[w]e 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.

Ante at 494 U. S. 878 -879. But as the Court later notes, as it must, in cases such as Cantwell and Yoder, we have in fact interpreted the Free Exercise Clause to forbid application of a generally applicable prohibition to religiously motivated conduct. See Cantwell, supra, 310 U.S. at 310 U. S. 304 -307; Yoder, supra, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 214 -234. Indeed, in Yoder we expressly rejected the interpretation the Court now adopts:

[O]ur decisions have rejected the idea that religiously grounded conduct is always outside the protection of the Free Exercise Clause. It is true that activities of individuals, even when religiously based, are often subject to regulation by the States in the exercise of their undoubted power to promote the health, safety, and general welfare, or the Federal Government in the exercise of its delegated powers. But to agree that religiously grounded conduct must often be subject to the broad police power of the State is not to deny that there are areas of conduct protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and thus beyond the power of the State to control, even under regulations of general applicability....... A regulation neutral on its face may, in its application, nonetheless offend the constitutional requirement for government neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion.

406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 219 -220 (emphasis added; citations omitted).

The Court endeavors to escape from our decisions in Cantwell and Yoder by labeling them "hybrid" decisions, ante at 494 U. S. 892, but there is no denying that both cases expressly relied on the Free Exercise Clause, see Cantwell, 310 U.S. at 310 U. S. 303 -307; Yoder, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 219 -229, and that we have consistently regarded those cases as part of the mainstream of our free exercise jurisprudence. Moreover, in each of the other cases cited by the Court to support its categorical rule, ante at 494 U. S. 879 -880, we rejected the particular constitutional claims before us only after carefully weighing the competing interests. See Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U. S. 158, 321 U. S. 168 -170 (1944) (state interest in regulating children's activities justifies denial of religious exemption from child labor laws); Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U. S. 599, 366 U. S. 608 -609 (1961) (plurality opinion) (state interest in uniform day of rest justifies denial of religious exemption from Sunday closing law); Gillette, supra, 401 U.S. at 462 (state interest in military affairs justifies denial of religious exemption from conscription laws); Lee, supra, 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 258 -259 (state interest in comprehensive social security system justifies denial of religious exemption from mandatory participation requirement). That we rejected the free exercise claims in those cases hardly calls into question the applicability of First Amendment doctrine in the first place. Indeed, it is surely unusual to judge the vitality of a constitutional doctrine by looking to the win-loss record of the plaintiffs who happen to come before us.


Respondents, of course, do not contend that their conduct is automatically immune from all governmental regulation simply because it is motivated by their sincere religious beliefs. The Court's rejection of that argument, ante at 494 U. S. 882, might therefore be regarded as merely harmless dictum. Rather, respondents invoke our traditional compelling interest test to argue that the Free Exercise Clause requires the State to grant them a limited exemption from its general criminal prohibition against the possession of peyote. The Court today, however, denies them even the opportunity to make that argument, concluding that "the sounder approach, and the approach in accord with the vast majority of our precedents, is to hold the [compelling interest] test inapplicable to" challenges to general criminal prohibitions. Ante at 494 U. S. 885.

In my view, however, the essence of a free exercise claim is relief from a burden imposed by government on religious practices or beliefs, whether the burden is imposed directly through laws that prohibit or compel specific religious practices, or indirectly through laws that, in effect, make abandonment of one's own religion or conformity to the religious beliefs of others the price of an equal place in the civil community. As we explained in Thomas:

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.

450 U.S. at 450 U. S. 717 -718. See also Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U. S. 829, 489 U. S. 832 (1989); Hobbie, 480 U.S. at 480 U. S. 141. A State that makes criminal an individual's religiously motivated conduct burdens that individual's free exercise of religion in the severest manner possible, for it "results in the choice to the individual of either abandoning his religious principle or facing criminal prosecution." Braunfeld, supra, 366 U.S. at 366 U. S. 605. I would have thought it beyond argument that such laws implicate free exercise concerns.

Indeed, we have never distinguished between cases in which a State conditions receipt of a benefit on conduct prohibited by religious beliefs and cases in which a State affirmatively prohibits such conduct. The Sherbert compelling interest test applies in both kinds of cases. See, e.g., Lee, 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 257 -260 (applying Sherbert to uphold social security tax liability); Gillette, 401 U.S. at 401 U. S. 462 (applying Sherbert to uphold military conscription requirement); Yoder, supra, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 215 -234 (applying Sherbert to strike down criminal convictions for violation of compulsory school attendance law). As I noted in Bowen v. Roy:

The fact that the underlying dispute involves an award of benefits rather than an exaction of penalties does not grant the Government license to apply a different version of the Constitution....... The fact that appellees seek exemption from a precondition that the Government attaches to an award of benefits does not, therefore, generate a meaningful distinction between this case and one where appellees seek an exemption from the Government's imposition of penalties upon them.

476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 731 -732 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part). See also Hobbie, supra, 480 U.S. at 480 U. S. 141 -142; Sherbert, 374 U.S. at 374 U. S. 404. I would reaffirm that principle today: a neutral criminal law prohibiting conduct that a State may legitimately regulate is, if anything, more burdensome than a neutral civil statute placing legitimate conditions on the award of a state benefit.

Legislatures, of course, have always been "left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order." Reynolds, 98 U.S. at 98 U. S. 164 ; see also Yoder, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 219 -220; Braunfeld, 366 U.S. at 366 U. S. 603 -604. Yet because of the close relationship between conduct and religious belief,

[i]n every case the power to regulate must be so exercised as not, in attaining a permissible end, unduly to infringe the protected freedom.

Cantwell, 310 U.S. at 310 U. S. 304. Once it has been shown that a government regulation or criminal prohibition burdens the free exercise of religion, we have consistently asked the Government to demonstrate that unbending application of its regulation to the religious objector "is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest," Lee, supra, 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 257 -258, or represents "the least restrictive means of achieving some compelling state interest," Thomas, 450 U.S. at 450 U. S. 718. See, e.g., Braunfeld, supra, 366 U.S. at 366 U. S. 607 ; Sherbert, supra, 374 U.S. at 374 U. S. 406 ; Yoder, supra, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 214 -215; Roy, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 728 -732 (opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part). To me, the sounder approach -the approach more consistent with our role as judges to decide each case on its individual merits -is to apply this test in each case to determine whether the burden on the specific plaintiffs before us is constitutionally significant, and whether the particular criminal interest asserted by the State before us is compelling. Even if, as an empirical matter, a government's criminal laws might usually serve a compelling interest in health, safety, or public order, the First Amendment at least requires a case-by-case determination of the question, sensitive to the facts of each particular claim. Cf. McDaniel, 435 U.S. at 435 U. S. 628, n. 8 (plurality opinion) (noting application of Sherbert to general criminal prohibitions and the "delicate balancing required by our decisions in" Sherbert and Yoder ). Given the range of conduct that a State might legitimately make criminal, we cannot assume, merely because a law carries criminal sanctions and is generally applicable, that the First Amendment never requires the State to grant a limited exemption for religiously motivated conduct.

Moreover, we have not "rejected" or "declined to apply" the compelling interest test in our recent cases. Ante at 494 U. S. 883 -884. Recent cases have instead affirmed that test as a fundamental part of our First Amendment doctrine. See, e.g., Hernandez, 490 U.S. at 490 U. S. 699 ; Hobbie, supra, 480 U.S. at 480 U. S. 141 -142 (rejecting Chief Justice Burger's suggestion in Roy, supra, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 707 -708, that free exercise claims be assessed under a less rigorous "reasonable means" standard). The cases cited by the Court signal no retreat from our consistent adherence to the compelling interest test. In both Bowen v. Roy, supra, and Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetary Protective Assn., 485 U. S. 439 (1988), for example, we expressly distinguished Sherbert on the ground that the First Amendment does not

require the Government itself to behave in ways that the individual believes will further his or her spiritual development.... The Free Exercise Clause simply cannot be understood to require the Government to conduct its own internal affairs in ways that comport with the religious beliefs of particular citizens.

Roy, supra, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 699 ; see Lyng, supra, 485 U.S. at 485 U. S. 449. This distinction makes sense because

the Free Exercise Clause is written in terms of what the government cannot do to the individual, not in terms of what the individual can exact from the government.

Sherbert, supra, 374 U.S. at 374 U. S. 412 (Douglas, J., concurring). Because the case sub judice, like the other cases in which we have applied Sherbert, plainly falls into the former category, I would apply those established precedents to the facts of this case.

Similarly, the other cases cited by the Court for the proposition that we have rejected application of the Sherbert test outside the unemployment compensation field, ante at 494 U. S. 884, are distinguishable because they arose in the narrow, specialized contexts in which we have not traditionally required the government to justify a burden on religious conduct by articulating a compelling interest. See Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U. S. 503, 475 U. S. 507 (1986) ("Our review of military regulations challenged on First Amendment grounds is far more deferential than constitutional review of similar laws or regulations designed for civilian society"); O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U. S. 342, 482 U. S. 349 (1987) ("[P]rison regulations alleged to infringe constitutional rights are judged under a reasonableness' test less restrictive than that ordinarily applied to alleged infringements of fundamental constitutional rights") (citation omitted). That we did not apply the compelling interest test in these cases says nothing about whether the test should continue to apply in paradigm free exercise cases such as the one presented here.

The Court today gives no convincing reason to depart from settled First Amendment jurisprudence. There is nothing talismanic about neutral laws of general applicability or general criminal prohibitions, for laws neutral toward religion can coerce a person to violate his religious conscience or intrude upon his religious duties just as effectively as laws aimed at religion. Although the Court suggests that the compelling interest test, as applied to generally applicable laws, would result in a "constitutional anomaly," ante at 494 U. S. 886, the First Amendment unequivocally makes freedom of religion, like freedom from race discrimination and freedom of speech, a "constitutional nor[m]," not an "anomaly." Ibid. Nor would application of our established free exercise doctrine to this case necessarily be incompatible with our equal protection cases. Cf. Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U. S. 613, 458 U. S. 618 (1982) (race-neutral law that " bears more heavily on one race than another'" may violate equal protection) (citation omitted); Castaneda v. Partida, 430 U. S. 482, 430 U. S. 492 -495 (1977) (grand jury selection). We have, in any event, recognized that the Free Exercise Clause protects values distinct from those protected by the Equal Protection Clause. See Hobbie, 480 U.S. at 480 U. S. 141 -142. As the language of the Clause itself makes clear, an individual's free exercise of religion is a preferred constitutional activity. See, e.g., McConnell, Accommodation of Religion, 1985 Sup.Ct.Rev. 1, 9 ("[T]he text of the First Amendment itself `singles out' religion for special protections"); P. Kauper, Religion and the Constitution 17 (1964). A law that makes criminal such an activity therefore triggers constitutional concern -and heightened judicial scrutiny -even if it does not target the particular religious conduct at issue. Our free speech cases similarly recognize that neutral regulations that affect free speech values are subject to a balancing, rather than categorical, approach. See, e.g., United States v. O'Brien, 391 U. S. 367, 391 U. S. 377 (1968); City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U. S. 41, 475 U. S. 46 -47 (1986); cf. Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U. S. 780, 460 U. S. 792 -794 (1983) (generally applicable laws may impinge on free association concerns). The Court's parade of horribles, ante at 494 U. S. 888 -889, not only fails as a reason for discarding the compelling interest test, it instead demonstrates just the opposite: that courts have been quite capable of applying our free exercise jurisprudence to strike sensible balances between religious liberty and competing state interests.

Finally, the Court today suggests that the disfavoring of minority religions is an "unavoidable consequence" under our system of government, and that accommodation of such religions must be left to the political process. Ante at 494 U. S. 890. In my view, however, the First Amendment was enacted precisely to protect the rights of those whose religious practices are not shared by the majority and may be viewed with hostility. The history of our free exercise doctrine amply demonstrates the harsh impact majoritarian rule has had on unpopular or emerging religious groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Amish. Indeed, the words of Justice Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (overruling Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U. S. 586 (1940)) are apt:

The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

319 U.S. at 319 U. S. 638. See also United States v. Ballard, 322 U. S. 78, 322 U. S. 87 (1944) ("The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of, the lack of any one religions creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views"). The compelling interest test reflects the First Amendment's mandate of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. For the Court to deem this command a "luxury," ante at 494 U. S. 888, is to denigrate "[t]he very purpose of a Bill of Rights."


The Court's holding today not only misreads settled First Amendment precedent; it appears to be unnecessary to this case. I would reach the same result applying our established free exercise jurisprudence.


There is no dispute that Oregon's criminal prohibition of peyote places a severe burden on the ability of respondents to freely exercise their religion. Peyote is a sacrament of the Native American Church, and is regarded as vital to respondents' ability to practice their religion. See O. Stewart, Peyote Religion: A History 327-336 (1987) (describing modern status of peyotism); E. Anderson, Peyote: The Divine Cactus 41-65 (1980) (describing peyote ceremonies); Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy 96-104 (D. Tedlock & B. Tedlock eds. 1975) (same); see also People v. Woody, 61 Cal.2d 716, 721-722, 40 Cal.Rptr. 69, 73-74, 394 P.2d 813, 817-818 (1964). As we noted in Smith I, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded that

the Native American Church is a recognized religion, that peyote is a sacrament of that church, and that respondent's beliefs were sincerely held.

485 U.S. at 485 U. S. 667. Under Oregon law, as construed by that State's highest court, members of the Native American Church must choose between carrying out the ritual embodying their religious beliefs and avoidance of criminal prosecution. That choice is, in my view, more than sufficient to trigger First Amendment scrutiny.

There is also no dispute that Oregon has a significant interest in enforcing laws that control the possession and use of controlled substances by its citizens. See, e.g., Sherbert, 374 U.S. at 374 U. S. 403 (religiously motivated conduct may be regulated where such conduct "pose[s] some substantial threat to public safety, peace or order"); Yoder, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 220 ("activities of individuals, even when religiously based, are often subject to regulation by the States in the exercise of their undoubted power to promote the health, safety and general welfare"). As we recently noted, drug abuse is "one of the greatest problems affecting the health and welfare of our population" and thus "one of the most serious problems confronting our society today." Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U. S. 656, 489 U. S. 668, 489 U. S. 674 (1989). Indeed, under federal law (incorporated by Oregon law in relevant part, see Ore.Rev.Stat. § 475.005(6) (1989)), peyote is specifically regulated as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that Congress has found that it has a high potential for abuse, that there is no currently accepted medical use, and that there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. See 21 U.S.C. § 812(b)(1). See generally R. Julien, A Primer of Drug Action 149 (3d ed. 1981). In light of our recent decisions holding that the governmental interests in the collection of income tax, Hernandez, 490 U.S. at 490 U. S. 699 -700, a comprehensive social security system, see Lee, 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 258 -259, and military conscription, see Gillette, 401 U.S. at 401 U. S. 460, are compelling, respondents do not seriously dispute that Oregon has a compelling interest in prohibiting the possession of peyote by its citizens.


Thus, the critical question in this case is whether exempting respondents from the State's general criminal prohibition "will unduly interfere with fulfillment of the governmental interest." Lee, supra, 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 259 ; see also Roy, 476 U.S. at 476 U. S. 727 ("[T]he Government must accommodate a legitimate free exercise claim unless pursuing an especially important interest by narrowly tailored means"); Yoder, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 221 ; Braunfeld, 366 U.S. at 366 U. S. 605 -607. Although the question is close, I would conclude that uniform application of Oregon's criminal prohibition is "essential to accomplish," Lee, supra, at 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 257, its overriding interest in preventing the physical harm caused by the use of a Schedule I controlled substance. Oregon's criminal prohibition represents that State's judgment that the possession and use of controlled substances, even by only one person, is inherently harmful and dangerous. Because the health effects caused by the use of controlled substances exist regardless of the motivation of the user, the use of such substances, even for religious purposes, violates the very purpose of the laws that prohibit them. Cf. State v. Massey, 229 N.C. 734, 51 S.E.2d 179 (denying religious exemption to municipal ordinance prohibiting handling of poisonous reptiles), appeal dism'd sub nom. Bunn v. North Carolina, 336 U.S. 942 (1949). Moreover, in view of the societal interest in preventing trafficking in controlled substances, uniform application of the criminal prohibition at issue is essential to the effectiveness of Oregon's stated interest in preventing any possession of peyote. Cf. 197 U. S. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11 (1905) (denying exemption from smallpox vaccination requirement).

For these reasons, I believe that granting a selective exemption in this case would seriously impair Oregon's compelling interest in prohibiting possession of peyote by its citizens. Under such circumstances, the Free Exercise Clause does not require the State to accommodate respondents' religiously motivated conduct. See, e.g., Thomas, 450 U.S. at 450 U. S. 719. Unlike in Yoder, where we noted that

[t]he record strongly indicates that accommodating the religious objections of the Amish by forgoing one, or at most two, additional years of compulsory education will not impair the physical or mental health of the child, or result in an inability to be self-supporting or to discharge the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, or in any other way materially detract from the welfare of society,

406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 234 ; see also id. at 406 U. S. 238 -240 (WHITE, J., concurring), a religious exemption in this case would be incompatible with the State's interest in controlling use and possession of illegal drugs.

Respondents contend that any incompatibility is belied by the fact that the Federal Government and several States provide exemptions for the religious use of peyote, see 21 CFR § 1307.31 (1989); 307 Or. at 73, n. 2, 763 P.2d at 148, n. 2 (citing 11 state statutes that expressly exempt sacramental peyote use from criminal proscription). But other governments may surely choose to grant an exemption without Oregon, with its specific asserted interest in uniform application of its drug laws, being required to do so by the First Amendment. Respondents also note that the sacramental use of peyote is central to the tenets of the Native American Church, but I agree with the Court, ante at 494 U. S. 886 -887, that because "[i]t is not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of particular beliefs or practices to a faith," Hernandez, supra, at 494 U. S. 699, our determination of the constitutionality of Oregon's general criminal prohibition cannot, and should not, turn on the centrality of the particular religious practice at issue. This does not mean, of course, that courts may not make factual findings as to whether a claimant holds a sincerely held religious belief that conflicts with, and thus is burdened by, the challenged law. The distinction between questions of centrality and questions of sincerity and burden is admittedly fine, but it is one that is an established part of our free exercise doctrine, see Ballard, 322 U.S. at 322 U. S. 85 -88, and one that courts are capable of making. See Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor, 471 U. S. 290, 471 U. S. 303 -305 (1985).

I would therefore adhere to our established free exercise jurisprudence and hold that the State in this case has a compelling interest in regulating peyote use by its citizens, and that accommodating respondents' religiously motivated conduct "will unduly interfere with fulfillment of the governmental interest." Lee, 455 U.S. at 455 U. S. 259. Accordingly, I concur in the judgment of the Court.


* Although Justice BRENNAN, Justice MARSHALL, and Justice BLACKMUN join Parts I and II of this opinion, they do not concur in the judgment.

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