Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Sec. Division (1981)

The Thomas case raised two major principles under the Equal Protection Clause: strict scrutiny and doctrinal non-interference. The facts were similar to Sherbert. Eddie C. Thomas, a Jehovah’s Witness and an employee of Blaw-Knox Foundry & Machinery Co., asked his company to lay him off when it transferred all of its operations to weapons manufacturing. He stated that his religious faith prohibited him from producing arms. His employer refused, so he quit instead. He applied for unemployment compensation, which was denied. The unemployment board attempted to distinguish the case from Sherbert by arguing that the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not prohibit Thomas from working on arms manufacturing.

In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court followed Sherbert and held that the Indiana Employment Review Board’s denial of unemployment benefits to Thomas violated his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. “A person may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program.”

The Court rejected the argument of the Review Board on the grounds that government cannot become entangled in questions of doctrinal interpretation: “[I]t is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire whether the petitioner or his fellow worker more correctly perceived the commands of their common faith. Courts are not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.”