Religious Freedom and Indian Rights: The Case of Oregon v. Smith / Edition 1

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The Supreme Court's controversial decision in Oregon v. Smith sharply departed from previous expansive readings of the First Amendment's religious freedom clause and ignited a firestorm of protest from legal scholars, religious groups, legislators, and Native Americans. Carolyn Long provides the first book-length analysis of Smith and shows why it continues to resonate so deeply in the American psyche.

In 1983, Klamath Indian Alfred Smith and his co-worker Galen Black were fired as counselors from a drug rehabilitation agency for using peyote, a controlled substance under Oregon law, in a religious ceremony of the Native American Church. Both were subsequently denied unemployment benefits, which the State of Oregon claimed was permissible under its police powers and necessary in its effort to eradicate drug abuse. But Smith and Black argued that the denial of unemployment benefits constituted an infringement of their religious freedom and took their cases to court.

Long traces the tortuous path that Smith followed as it went from state courts to the Supreme Court and then back again for a second round of hearings. A major event in Native American history, the case attracted widespread support for the Indian cause from a diverse array of religious groups eager to protect their own religious freedom. It also led to an intense tug-of-war between the Court and Congress, which fought back with amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (to protect the religious use of peyote) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which protected religious freedom for all Americans. The Court subsequently ruled the latter act unconstitutional in Boerne v. Flores (1997).

Long provides a lucid and balanced view of the competing sides in Smith. Drawing on interviews with Smith and his family, as well as with lawyers, judges, and congressional and interest group representatives involved in this struggle between Congress and Court, she takes the reader from the rituals of a peyote religious ceremony to the halls of government to reveal the conflicting interests that emerged in this key First Amendment case. She also clarifies how the Court reversed longstanding precedent by replacing the balancing test of "compelling state interest" and "least restrictive means" with a new "reasonable basis" argument that theoretically could be used to curtail religious practices well beyond those of the Native American church.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protection of religious freedom applies only to laws that specifically target religious behavior and that an individual's religious beliefs do not excuse one from complying with statutes that indirectly infringe on their religious rights. Engagingly written, Long's study highlights the resultant struggles, but without ever losing sight of the rich human dimensions of the story.

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Editorial Reviews

In 1983, two Klamath Indians were fired from their positions as drug rehabilitation counselors for their use of peyote in a Native American Church ceremony. When the state of Oregon denied them unemployment benefits Alfred Smith and his co-worker claimed this was an infringement on their religious freedom and filed a lawsuit. This book covers the landmark case that followed, a case which worked its way all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back to the state level, gathering public interest and support as it did. Through interviews with Smith and his family, lawyers, judges and congressional and interest group, Long (Washington State U.) explores the peyote ceremonies, the conflicting government goals in this First Amendment case and its continuing implications. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700610648
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 1/28/2001
  • Series: Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,003,759
  • Product dimensions: 5.57 (w) x 8.53 (h) x 0.95 (d)

Table of Contents

Editors' Preface



1. The Peyote Road

2. God v. Caesar

3. Religion and the Court

4. "Thou Shalt Not Ration Justice"

5. The Oregon Battle

6. An Appeal to the High Court

7. Employment Division v. Smith I: Back to Oregon

8. A Difference in Perspective

9. Employment Division v. Smith II: The Court Comes Full Circle

10. Many Rivers to Cross

11. Congress Responds to the Court

12. "An Endlessly Renewed Educational Conversation"



Bibliographic Essay


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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2004

    A Great Public Law Case Study

    Long writes with insight and verve. She focuses on the human stuggles that protect our civil liberties. Long offers insightful institutional analysis too. Anyone interested in future of religious freedom in American must read this book.

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