Court Widens Religious Belief Protection

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Constitution’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion protects a person who belongs to no established church, but who invokes personal religious beliefs as the basis for his actions.

In a 9-0 decision, the court said that Illinois officials cannot deny unemployment benefits to a Peoria man who said that his personal religious views prevented him from working on Sunday.

Individual religious beliefs need not flow from a “tenet or dogma . . . of some church, sect or denomination,” the justices said. As long as the beliefs are not “bizarre” and do not put an undue burden on the government, they are entitled to protection under the First Amendment.

Widens Protection Slightly

The ruling stretches constitutional protection for religion only slightly. In decisions dating back to 1963, the court had said that a religious person such as a Seventh-Day Adventist could not be denied unemployment aid for refusing to work on Saturdays. The court by tradition has given the benefit of the doubt to religious claims.

Recently, however, a more conservative court has ruled against religious adherents whose claims burden the government. Last year, for example, the court on a 5-3 vote allowed the U.S. Forest Service to build a road through a Northern California forest, even though American Indians said that the project would destroy their sacred burial grounds. The Constitution does not give religious adherents “a veto over public programs,” the court said last year.


In the latest case, Illinois officials made no claim that giving unemployment aid to people such as William A. Frazee of Peoria would be too costly. Instead, they said that Frazee’s religious beliefs were personal, depriving him of protection under the First Amendment.

In 1984, Frazee was unemployed, but turned down a sales job at a clothing store which required him to work on Sundays. Asked by a state official why he would not work Sundays, Frazee replied: “It’s just against my faith.”

“What faith is that?,” the official asked.

“I’m a Christian,” he replied. When pressed further, Frazee explained he was not following a particular church tenet.

“Just as a Christian, I feel it’s wrong,” he said.

Based on that record, state officials denied Frazee’s claim for benefits. A state appellate court upheld that decision last year because his refusal to work was not based on “a tenet, belief or teaching of an established religious body.” The state judge added: “Today, Sunday is not only a day for religion but for recreation and labor. If all Americans were to abstain from working on Sunday, chaos would result.”

Lawyers for the Rutherford Institute, which supports conservative religious causes, appealed on Frazee’s behalf, arguing that his religious rights were violated.

In a six-page opinion written by Justice Byron R. White, the high court agreed. “Frazee’s refusal was based on a sincerely held religious belief. Under our cases, he was entitled to invoke First Amendment protection,” White wrote in the case (Frazee vs. Illinois Employment Security Department, 87-1945).

“As we have said in the past, there may exist state interests sufficiently compelling to override a legitimate claim to the free exercise of religion. No such interest has been presented here,” he wrote. “There is nothing . . . to suggest that Sunday shopping, or Sunday sporting, for that matter, will grind to a halt as a result of our decision today.”