The Supreme Court decision in Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), established that a worker could not be denied unemployment for refusing to work on Sunday for religious reasons.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security denied unemployment benefits to William Frazee, a Christian, because he refused an offer from Kelly Services for a temporary position that would have required him to work on Sunday. An administrative review board, the Illinois circuit court, and the state appellate court all affirmed the initial decision. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.

Justice Byron R. White, in the opinion for the Court, reasoned that the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment protected Frazee’s refusal to work on Sunday and that he was therefore entitled to unemployment benefits.

No established religious doctrine needed, Court holds

Frazee did not claim to be a member of a particular religious denomination that taught this tenet; instead, he maintained that it was his personal conviction that he could not work on Sunday. This factor set the decision apart from Sherbert v. Verner (1963), Thomas v. Review Board of Indiana Employment Security Division (1981), and Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida (1987), because in these cases the appellants were relying specifically on religious doctrine.

The Supreme Court determined that religious belief need not be part of established religious doctrine to be considered under the free-exercise clause. Instead, free exercise is based on “sincerely held religious belief,” which the Court found to exist in Frazee’s case.

The Court also pointed out that the state had no compelling interest that would override this free-exercise claim. The concept of “compelling interest” is one the Court used frequently in assessing the outcome of a free-exercise case.

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