Another Religious Unemployment Compensation Case

The discussion of the unemployment compensation case involving the woman who refused to sell alcohol was very interesting to me, and seemed to interest many commenters. I therefore thought I’d bring up another similar unemployment compensation case, and see what people thought about it. First, remember the general legal framework: Most states will let people who quit their jobs collect unemployment compensation only if they had “good cause” for leaving, and if they are available to take another job (unless they have “good cause” for declining that). In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), Adell Sherbert, “a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was discharged by her South Carolina employer because she would not work on Saturday, the Sabbath Day of her faith. When she was unable to obtain other employment because from conscientious scruples she would not take Saturday work, she filed a claim for unemployment compensation benefits under the South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act.” The state concluded that she wasn’t entitled to the benefits because she was refusing jobs without “good cause.” But the Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning (in part):

[T]he disqualification for benefits imposes [a] burden on the free exercise of appellant’s religion…. [A]ppellant’s declared ineligibility for benefits derives solely from the practice of her religion, [and] the pressure upon her to forego that practice is unmistakable. The ruling forces her to choose between following the precepts of her religion and forfeiting benefits, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of her religion in order to accept work, on the other hand. Governmental imposition of such a choice puts the same kind of burden upon the free exercise of religion as would a fine imposed against appellant for her Saturday worship….

In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court generally rejected the notion that people are entitled to religious exemptions from generally applicable laws, but preserved the Sherbert doctrine as to unemployment compensation schemes:

The Sherbert test … was developed in a context that lent itself to individualized governmental assessment of the reasons for the relevant conduct…. [A] distinctive feature of unemployment compensation programs is that their eligibility criteria invite consideration of the particular circumstances behind an applicant’s unemployment: “The statutory conditions … provided that a person was not eligible for unemployment compensation benefits if, ‘without good cause,’ he had quit work or refused available work. The ‘good cause’ standard created a mechanism for individualized exemptions.” … [O]ur decisions in the unemployment cases stand for the proposition that where the State has in place a system of individual exemptions, it may not refuse to extend that system to cases of “religious hardship” without compelling reason.

Now, the particular case, Marvin v. Giles (Ohio Ct. App. 1983):

Marvin stopped working for his employer, appellee Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati (“the bank”), on November 28, 1980, after almost seven years of employment with the bank and a total of fourteen years of continuous employment since his graduation from high school. At the bank he was the manager of the check processing area, was making in excess of $25,000 a year, and was scheduled to be promoted to assistant treasurer.

On February 25, 1979, while attending the Bibleway Church of God in Christ’s Church at 3231 Woodburn Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio, Marvin, according to his sworn testimony, had a religious experience and was told by God to return to his home in Alabama within two years to help raise his deceased sister’s six children. He did resign from the bank, went to Alabama, attempted to secure employment, could not, and applied for unemployment compensation. Throughout the entire administrative proceedings, Marvin’s claim was disallowed because it was held that he quit his work without just cause under the Ohio Unemployment Compensation Law….

While the facts in Thomas are not identical to those here, nevertheless, the similarity is marked. Thomas quit due to his religious convictions. The only reasonable interpretation which can be made of the hearing referee’s findings here is that Sammie L. Marvin quit or “resigned” because he “had a vision and was instructed by God to relocate to Alabama to help in a family situation,” a decree which the record demonstrates was given to him while attending a formal service in the church of his choice. If there was a religious conviction in Thomas, as the Supreme Court held, a religious conviction is present here on the part of Marvin. The referee in effect recognized that Marvin may have had a good personal reason for quitting his employment, but concluded that a “good personal reason” is not enough for benefits under Ohio law. A “good personal reason” unassociated with a religious conviction ordinarily would not be sufficient to justify the allowance of unemployment benefits. However, if there is a true religious conviction present, benefits cannot be withheld even if the religious conviction may also be categorized as a personal conviction. Here, the finding of a “good personal reason” did not eliminate what amounted to a finding of religious conviction….

[Footnote: We are not blind to the possibility of charlatans unlawfully faking religious beliefs for their own nefarious purposes. This possibility makes the determination of what is a religious belief or practice “a difficult and delicate task” as the United States Supreme Court recognized in Thomas. The roles of hearing referees and review boards are extremely important in this respect. Findings should report attempted deception or fakery when discerned. There is no suggestion of chicanery in the Thomas case, nor here. Contrariwise, the administrative record tends to demonstrate Marvin’s religious sincerity….

Claimant-appellant’s testimony was taken in Alabama on a cassette tape and sent to Ohio where the hearing referee listened to it and had it transcribed. No appellate argument in any way questions this procedure, and I introduce no noteworthy significance to it.] …

[T]he decision of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review is unlawful and that the appellant is entitled to such unemployment compensation (for time in a covered employment) as is authorized under the laws of Ohio since appellant terminated his employment because of his religious convictions….

Does this result make sense? What light does it shed on the Sherbert/Thomas doctrine?