480 U. S. 136
February 25, 1987
Paula Hobbie converted to Seventh Day Adventism, and was later fired from the jewelry store she worked at for her refusal to work on Saturdays. When she applied for unemployment compensation, she was denied with the explanation that compensation was not provided to employees who were fired due to “misconduct.” Hobbie contended that this denial violated the free exercise clause.
Brennan wrote for an 8-1 majority in favor of Hobbie. He found that the case was controlled entirely by two earlier and almost identical precedents, Sherbert v. Verner and Thomas v. Review Board. He quickly dismissed some attempts to distinguish those cases on the grounds that Hobbie was a convert, and that the denial of benefits was slightly less onerous than in the precedents. Brennan also specifically reaffirmed the Court’s commitment to subjecting all government burdens on free exercise to strict scrutiny, requiring the government to prove a compelling interest.
Powell concurred in judgment. He found that the Sherbert and Thomas precedents controlled, but bizarrely objected to Brennan’s restatement of the compelling interest test. Stevens, knowing he was bound by the precedents, concurred in judgment without offering any explanation as to why he did not join the majority opinion. As I explained previously, Stevens is always a passive-agressive tool in religion cases. Rehnquist dissented, adhering to his view that Thomas was wrongly decided.
This case was very sad to read. The decision itself was great, but I read it knowing full well that the free exercise clause would never be quite this strong again. In the next several years, Scalia and White would fall away from the compelling interest standard, and judicially cripple freedom of religion. It was also heartbreaking to see Brennan writing the majority opinion, knowing that no liberal Justice would ever do such a thing today. It’s even more striking to see Brennan caring about religious Americans being disfavored by unemployment commissions when you remember that he joined the majority in Wimberly. It was a different era indeed.