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Peyote, Hobby Lobby and the religious freedom law

by Chris Casteel Published: March 23, 2014

There is some poetic coincidence in the fact that an Oklahoma company, Hobby Lobby, is at the center of a major U.S. Supreme Court case over a federal law protecting religious freedom.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 because Congress was upset the Supreme Court declined to endorse a religious exemption for the use of peyote by members of the Native American Church, which was founded in Oklahoma.

In a case from the state of Oregon, the court ruled that peyote, even if used as a sacrament, is an illegal substance and people could justifiably be denied unemployment benefits if they were fired from their jobs for taking the drug.

“We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate,’’ Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.

Granting members of the Native American Church a religious exemption from the law against taking peyote, Scalia wrote, would “open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” ranging from compulsory military service, the payment of taxes, manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, traffic laws, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.

“The First Amendment's protection of religious liberty does not require this,’’ Scalia wrote.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, joined with Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah, to sponsor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Senate.

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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