Hobbie v. Unemployment Comm.
Bill Long 7/29/05
480 US 136 (Decided 2/25/87)
Legal scholars often refer to the famous Jehovah's Witness flag salute cases of the 1940s as among the most signficant in shaping the early days of the Court's understanding of the FE clause of the 1st Amendment. If we can thank the Jehovah's Witnesses for clarifying the contours of the free exercise of religion in that decade, we can also thank the Seventh-day Adventists for helping the Court develop the three fold "Sherbert" test regarding government burdening of religious expression.
The Hobbie case, from Florida, also presented the termination of a Seventh-day Adventist from work because she refused to work on her religion's Sabbath Day. Important for this case, however, is not necessarily the holding, which simply reiterates the Sherbert/Thomas conclusion, nor the dissent of (now) Chief Justice Rehnquist, who merely echoed his Thomas dissent, but from a vigorous rejection of the mode of argument pursued in another case (Bowen, 1986) that would, eventually, reach its fruition in Employment Division (1990). Let's review the Hobbie case and holding before quoting the significant paragraph rejecting the Bowen argument.
Paula Hobbie began working for Lawton and Co. (Fl. jewelers) in October 1981. She converted to Seventh-day Adventism in April 1984 and informed her supervisor that she would no longer be able to work on the Adventist Sabbath (sundown Friday-sundown Saturday). She eventually was terminated, applied for unemployment benefits and was turned down. This decision was upheld by an appellate court.
I guess I could be pardoned a personal observation at this point. When the Supreme Court's langauge and views on this subject were made rather perfectly clear both in Sherbert and Thomas, why are states STILL, in 1986, refusing to award unemployment compensation to those terminated from employment or quitting work because of religious reasons? I don't know, but Florida's decision to do so brougth the Supreme Court down on them just as it had on the South Carolina and Indiana courts.
Rationale and "Interesting" Paragraph
Justice Brennan, who authored the Sherbert "tests" twenty-four years previously, wrote the majority opinion in this 8-1 decision. He reversed the Florida court by saying: "We see no meaningful distinction among the situations of Sherbert, Thomas, and Hobbie." Then, quoting from Thomas, just as he earlier quoted from Sherbert, Brennan wrote:
"Where the state conditions receipt of an important benefit upon the 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..."
Our eyes glaze over; this is simple stuff; Brennan just repeats himself.
Until...he drops a paragraph into the opinion that shows that all isn't well in the liberal camp, where broad berth is given to FE claims. The Florida Appeals Commission had quoted, in its denial of benefits, the language of Chief Justice Berger in Bowen v. Roy (1986):
"The Government meets its burden when it demonstrates that a challenged requirement for governmental benefits, neutral and uniform in its application, is a reasonable means of promoting a legitimate government interest."
This test was developed in another context (see the summary here), but it sent chills down the spine of the majority, for here another test was articulated. Rather than "burden" on an individual's religion being the operative factor, a "neutral and uniform" government program was the focus. Rather than a burden that must be removed by a showing of compelling state interest, we need only have a neutral and uniform government law that must only be reasonably related to a legitimate government interest. In other words, religious free exercise, as seen by Justice Brennan, might (under this Bowen test) be reduced to a "rational basis" test rather than a "strict scrutiny" inquiry.
How does he respond to the possible interjection of this "new" test for religious free exercise? "Five Justices expressly rejected this argument in Roy [i.e., Bowen v. Roy]. We reject the argument again today. As Justice O'Connor pointed out in Roy: "such 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.'" And then Brennan "trumps" everything by a choice quotation from the 1972 Amish education case (Wisconsin v. Yoder): "Only those interests of the highest order and those not otherwise served can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion."
Something is afoot here. Though this case seems to be nothing more than a simple affirmation of a well-settled principle in FE jurisprudence, the Justices, especially Brennan, saw the need to try to stamp out a brush fire that now had engulfed three of his colleagues. Let's turn to that case now, Bowen v. Roy, to find out what the fuss was about.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long