Religious Discrimination in South Carolina

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Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About?


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This article is part of a weekly series explaining key cases and religious freedom laws. Visit Religious Freedom: What’s All the Fuss About? to read additional articles, or click subscribe to get weekly updates. 


by Ryan Snow

Should the government withhold benefits from people because they are religious? What if the government doesn’t take your religion seriously, and considers your religious beliefs arbitrary?

Adell Sherbert worked for Spartan Mills textile plant in South Carolina for about thirty-five years as a spool tender. While working for Spartan Mills, Mrs. Sherbert joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a religion where the Sabbath falls on Saturday. From World War II until 1959, work on Saturdays at Spartan Mills was optional for all employees. On June 5, 1959, Mrs. Sherbert was notified that commencing the next day she would be required to work Saturday. Subsequently, when Mrs. Sherbert only reported to work Monday through Friday for six weeks in a row she was discharged from her employment.

After her involuntary discharge, Mrs. Sherbert tried to find work at other mills in the area, but could not find any suitable five-day work. After being unable to find employment respecting her religious beliefs, Mrs. Sherbert sought unemployment compensation benefits from the State of South Carolina.

Adell’s request for unemployment compensation was denied. The unemployment office decided Adell did not qualify for unemployment benefits because she was unwilling to work Saturdays and thus had failed “without good cause, to accept ‘suitable work when offered … by the employment office or the employer…”

The South Carolina unemployment compensation law required that people take employment when offered to them unless they had a good reason not to. The gist of the unemployment commission’s decision was that declining to work on the Sabbath day was not a good enough reason to decline work.

A Seventh Day Adventist Church Building. © Anthony White. Used with Permission of Creative Commons License.

Adell appealed the denial of unemployment benefits to the U.S. Supreme Court—and won. South Carolina’s only argument for refusing benefits had been the “possibility that the filing of fraudulent claims” could occur by “unscrupulous claimants feigning religious objections to Saturday work.”  The Supreme Court rejected that argument because “there [was] no proof whatsoever to warrant such fears of malingering or deceit.”

The Supreme Court ruled “South Carolina may not constitutionally apply” its unemployment compensation law “so as to constrain a worker to abandon his religious convictions respecting the day of rest.” The Court concluded that “conditions upon public benefits cannot be sustained if they so operate, whatever their purpose, as to inhibit or deter the exercise of First Amendment freedoms.” The end result was Adell Sherbert could not be denied unemployment benefits for refusing to work on her Sabbath; the First Amendment guaranteed the free exercise of religion.

Prior to this case, courts had long struggled with deciding how to resolve religious freedom claims. Adell’s case clearly articulated a standard to help judges. The “Sherbert Test” limited the government’s ability to “substantially burden” a person’s sincere, religious beliefs unnecessarily. 

The Sherbert Test (or Compelling Interest Test):

The Individual Must Show:

  • The person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, AND
  • The government action is a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief. 

Then The Government Must Prove:

  • It is acting in furtherance of a “compelling state interest,” AND
  • It pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.

The “Sherbert Test” became very popular – seen as an effective way by people on both sides of the political aisle to ensure the First Amendment’s promise of freedom and equality for all. So much so, that when the Court significantly limited the Sherbert Test in a similar case nearly three decades later (see a prior blog post in this series, The Hallucinogenic Origins of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), a large, bipartisan group quickly acted to reinstate the test through legislation called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

*All quotes can be found in the actual case text, Sherbert v. Verner, 240 S.C. 286, 288 (1962), rev’d 374 U.S. 398 (1963).  
The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  This information is not intended to create, and the receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship.  

 

Summary: Sherbert v. Verner

BACKGROUND:

  • Adell Sherbert was fired for refusing to work on the Sabbath after a change in company policy that occurred more than three decades after she was first employed.
  • South Carolina denied Adell unemployment benefits because she was unwilling to accept work on the Sabbath.

ISSUE:

  • Did South Carolina violate the First Amendment by refusing to provide Mrs. Sherbert unemployment compensation?

OUTCOME:

  • The Supreme Court sided with Mrs. Sherbert and rejected South Carolina’s argument that a “parade of horribles” would happen if she was granted unemployment benefits.  South Carolina did not demonstrate a “compelling” reason for requiring Mrs. Sherbert to violate her faith.

IMPACT:

  • What became known as the “Sherbert Test” was first fully articulated by the Court in this case and subsequently assisted judges in resolving religious freedom claims.
  • Religious freedom is not absolute; one requirement for the government to override sincere, religious practices is to demonstrate a “compelling” reason. Another is to pursue that “compelling” interest in the manner “least restrictive” to religion.
  • After nearly three decades, the Court significantly limited the Sherbert Test in Employment v. Smith. Legislation called The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was then passed to reinstate the Sherbert Test.

Ryan Snow is a graduate of Brigham Young University - Idaho and SMU Dedman School of Law. He currently practices law in Texas and enjoys spending time with his family.


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