Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division: Denying Freedom of Religion in Unemployment Compensation Cases


Since the 1963 United States Supreme Court decision in Sherbert v. Verner, the free exercise clause of the first amendment has been construed to limit the ability of the states to deny unemployment compensation to claimants whose religious practices or beliefs cause them to be disqualified from receiving benefits. Unless the state can show a compelling interest which justifies the disqualification, it may not apply unemployment compensation disqualification provisions so as to cause claimants to abandon their religious practices. In Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division, the Supreme Court of Indiana significantly narrowed the scope of Sherbert when it denied unemployment compensation to a Jehovah’s Witness whose religious convictions compelled him to quit his job at an armaments production plant.

The Indiana Supreme Court thereby joined the growing ranks of state courts which have resisted the Sherbert holding by denying the claims to social welfare benefits brought by religious practitioners. In Sherbert, the United States Supreme Court ruled that absent a compelling interest, states have a duty under the first amendment’s free exercise clause to allow exceptions to unemployment benefit eligibility provisions when necessary to safeguard religious liberty. Thomas represents a significant state reinterpretation of the scope of the Sherbert doctrine.

A free exercise challenge to governmental action must meet two threshold requirements. First, the claim must be based upon bona fide “religious” beliefs within the constitutional meaning of the term. Second, the beliefs must be sincerely held. Once these prerequisites are satisfied, the question becomes whether the governmental requirement imposes any burden on the free exercise of the claimant’s religion. If the claimant demonstrates that a burden exists, the government must show that its action furthers a compelling state interest, and that this interest cannot be achieved by means less burdensome to the free exercise of the claimant’s religion.

This Comment will first evaluate the threshold issues: whether Thomas’ refusal to aid in the production of armaments was based on a “religious” belief as defined by the first amendment, and whether he sincerely held such a belief. The Comment will then analyze the merits of Thomas’ free exercise challenge. It will evaluate his claim that the Indiana disqualification provision burdened his religious faith and practice, and then examine both the substantiality of the government’s interest in the provision and the effectiveness of the means chosen to serve that interest. This Comment will conclude that the Indiana Supreme Court departed from the free exercise analysis prescribed by the United States Supreme Court, and improperly denied Thomas’ claim.

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