The Supreme Court today barred states from denying unemployment benefits to people who refuse to work on their Sabbath even if the refusal is not based on a religious sect’s doctrine.
The justices, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, said Illinois officials violated a Peoria man’s religious freedom by denying him unemployment benefits.
The high court previously had barred states from denying unemployment benefits to people who refuse certain work because of religious scruples. But in all previous cases, the worker’s refusal was based on the teachings of an established religious group such as the Seventh-day Adventists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Justice Byron R. White wrote for the court, “Never did we suggest that unless a claimant belongs to a sect that forbids what his job requires, his belief, however sincere, must be deemed a purely personal preference rather than a religious belief.”
The ruling means, for example, that a Methodist or Roman Catholic might be eligible for unemployment benefits after refusing to work on Sunday even though neither church bars Sunday work as part of its official doctrine.
William Frazee of Peoria was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits after turning down in 1984 a temporary job assignment that would have required him to work on Sunday.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security ruled that Frazee’s rejection of the job offer disqualified him from receiving unemployment benefits.
State officials, while not questioning Frazee’s sincerity, said a refusal to work due to religious scruples must be based “on some tenet or dogma accepted by the individual of some church, sect or denomination"--and not based merely on personal religious convictions.