What does smoking peyote in a Native American sacrament have to do with a Roman Catholic adoption agency in Philadelphia?

Quite a lot, according to Albany Law Professor Vin Bonventre.

A little background:

In a case called “Fulton v. City of Philadelphia”, Catholic Social Services argued before the Supreme Court this week that the Constitution gives it the right to opt out of the nondiscrimination requirement – specifically, it’s entitled to discriminate against potential foster parents on the basis of sexual orientation.

According to Bonventre, the Justice Robert H. Jackson distinguished professor of law at Albany Law School, and author of the New York Court Watcher Blog, the precedent that Supreme Court justices will be looking at to inform their decision-making in this case was written in 1990 by the late Antonin Scalia. The case is called “Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith.”

Smith, in this case, was Alfred Smith who was fired from his job as a private drug rehabilitation counselor for ingesting peyote as part of a Native American Church sacrament.

When Smith and his colleague, who was also fired, applied for unemployment benefits, the Oregon State Division of Employment denied their request for benefits because they had violated a state criminal statute. 

Smith sued. 

The state appellate court reversed the denial of benefits, finding that the denial violated their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The state supreme court affirmed the appellate court. 

The case went back and forth, but ultimately it landed back at the Supreme Court, which was asked to rule on this question: Can a state deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes?

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said yes it can.  

According to Employment Division v. Smith, allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion "would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind."

“Scalia cited as examples compulsory military service, payment of taxes, vaccination requirements, and child-neglect laws,” according to Oyez.com.

Fast forward to the Fulton Case, which Bonventre told Capital Tonight should have been a slam dunk in favor of Catholic Social Services, since the court has a conservative majority; the only fly in the ointment is the Scalia decision in the Smith case.

In that precedent-setting case, Scalia changed religious free exercise law “dramatically” by ruling that generally applicable laws not targeting specific religious practices do not violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. 

Under this precedent, Catholic Social Services’ argument may not be able to withstand scrutiny. 

The court’s rulings typically come out in the spring.