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decided: April 6, 1981.



Burger, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Powell, and Stevens, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II, and III of which Blackmun, J., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a statement concurring in part and concurring in the result, post, p. 720. Rehnquist, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 720.

Author: Burger

[ 450 U.S. Page 709]

 CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to consider whether the State's denial of unemployment compensation benefits to the petitioner, a Jehovah's Witness who terminated his job because his religious beliefs forbade participation in the production of armaments, constituted a violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. 444 U.S. 1070 (1980).


Thomas terminated his employment in the Blaw-Knox Foundry & Machinery Co. when he was transferred from the roll foundry to a department that produced turrets for military tanks. He claimed his religious beliefs prevented him from participating in the production of war materials. The respondent Review Board denied him unemployment compensation benefits by applying disqualifying provisions of the Indiana Employment Security Act.*fn1

[ 450 U.S. Page 710]

     Thomas, a Jehovah's Witness, was hired initially to work in the roll foundry at Blaw-Knox. The function of that department was to fabricate sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses. On his application form, he listed his membership in the Jehovah's Witnesses, and noted that his hobbies were Bible study and Bible reading. However, he placed no conditions on his employment; and he did not describe his religious tenets in any detail on the form.

Approximately a year later, the roll foundry closed, and Blaw-Knox transferred Thomas to a department that fabricated turrets for military tanks. On his first day at this new job, Thomas realized that the work he was doing was weapons related. He checked the bulletin board where in-plant openings were listed, and discovered that all of the remaining departments at Blaw-Knox were engaged directly in the production of weapons. Since no transfer to another department would resolve his problem, he asked for a layoff. When that request was denied, he quit, asserting that he could not work on weapons without violating the principles of his religion. The record does not show that he was offered any nonweapons work by his employer, or that any such work was available.

Upon leaving Blaw-Knox, Thomas applied for unemployment compensation benefits under the Indiana Employment Security Act.*fn2 At an administrative hearing where he was

[ 450 U.S. Page 711]

     not represented by counsel, he testified that he believed that contributing to the production of arms violated his religion. He said that when he realized that his work on the tank turret line involved producing weapons for war, he consulted another Blaw-Knox employee -- a friend and fellow Jehovah's Witness. The friend advised him that working on weapons parts at Blaw-Know was not "unscriptural." Thomas was not able to "rest with" this view, however. He concluded that his friend's view was based upon a less strict reading of Witnesses' principles than his own.

When asked at the hearing to explain what kind of work his religious convictions would permit, Thomas said that he would have no difficulty doing the type of work that he had done at the roll foundry. He testified that he could, in good conscience, engage indirectly in the production of materials that might be used ultimately to fabricate arms -- for example, as an employee of a raw material supplier or of a roll foundry.*fn3

The hearing referee found that Thomas' religious beliefs specifically precluded him from producing or directly aiding in the manufacture of items used in warfare.*fn4 He also found that Thomas had terminated his employment because of these religious convictions. The referee reported:

"Claimant continually searched for a transfer to another department which would not be so armament related;

[ 450 U.S. Page 712]

     however, this did not materialize, and prior to the date of his leaving, claimant requested a layoff, which was denied; and on November 6, 1975, claimant did quit due to his religious convictions."*fn5

The referee concluded nonetheless that Thomas' termination was not based upon a "good cause [arising] in connection with [his] work," as required by the Indiana unemployment compensation statute. Accordingly, he was held not entitled to benefits. The Review Board adopted the referee's findings and conclusions, and affirmed the denial of benefits.*fn6

The Indiana Court of Appeals, accepting the finding that Thomas terminated his employment "due to his religious convictions," reversed the decision of the Review Board, and held that ยง 22-4-15-1, as applied, improperly burdened Thomas' right to the free exercise of his religion. Accordingly, it ordered the Board to extend benefits to Thomas. 178 Ind. App. , 381 N. E. 2d 888 (1978).

The Supreme Court of Indiana, dividing 3-2, vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, and denied Thomas benefits. 271 Ind. , 391 N. E. 2d 1127 (1979). With reference to the Indiana unemployment compensation statute, the court said:

"It is not intended to facilitate changing employment or to provide relief for those who quit work voluntarily for personal reasons. Voluntary unemployment is not compensable under the purpose of the Act, which is to provide benefits for persons unemployed through no fault of their own.

"Good cause which justifies voluntary termination must

[ 450 U.S. Page 713]

     be job-related and objective in character." Id., at , 391 N. E. 2d, at 1129 (footnotes omitted).

The court held that Thomas had quit voluntarily for personal reasons, and therefore did not qualify for benefits. Id., at , 391 N. E. 2d, at 1130.

In discussing the petitioner's free exercise claim, the court stated: "A personal philosophical choice rather than a religious choice, does not rise to the level of a first amendment claim." Id., at , 391 N. E. 2d, at 1131. The court found the basis and the precise nature of Thomas' belief unclear -- but it concluded that the belief was more "personal philosophical choice" than religious belief. Nonetheless, it held that, even assuming that Thomas quit for religious reasons, he would not be entitled to benefits: under Indiana law, a termination motivated by religion is not for "good cause" objectively related to the work.

The Indiana court concluded that denying Thomas benefits would create only an indirect burden on his free exercise right and that the burden was justified by the legitimate state interest in preserving the integrity of the insurance fund and maintaining a stable work force by encouraging workers not to leave their jobs for personal reasons.

Finally, the court held that awarding unemployment compensation benefits to a person who terminates employment voluntarily for religious reasons, while denying such benefits to persons who terminate for other personal but non-religious reasons, would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The judgment under review must be examined in light of our prior decisions, particularly Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963).


Only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause, which, by its terms, gives special protection to the exercise of ...

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