Employment and Training Administration
Washington, D. C. 20210






June 16, 1981




June 30, 1982











Administration and Management




U.S. Supreme Court's Decision of April 6, 1981, in Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division; Religious Beliefs as Good Cause for Voluntary Quit


  1. Purpose. To inform SESAs of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Thomas case and its implications for State law provisions relating to good cause for voluntary quit of work when the quit is for good cause by reason of religious beliefs.

  2. Background. The petitioner, Eddie C. Thomas, left his work with a foundry when he was transferred from the roll foundry, which fabricated sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses, to a department of the same employer that produced turrets for military tanks. When Thomas realized that his work involved producing weapons for war, he, as a Jehovah's witness, was unable, in good conscience, to continue in that work, although another Jehovah's Witness working in the same department did not feel the work was "unscriptural." Thomas checked to see if a transfer was possible to a department that was not engaged in weapons work. There was none, and Thomas asked for a layoff. When that request was denied, he quit, asserting that he could not work on weapons without violating the principles of his religion.

    Thomas filed a claim for benefits under the Indiana law. There is no indication in the decision what happened in the nonmonetary determination process. At the lower administrative appeals level, the referee found that Thomas left his work because his religious beliefs specifically precluded him from producing or directly aiding in the manufacture of items used in warfare. The referee concluded, nevertheless, that the leaving was without good cause in connection with the work within the meaning of section 24-4-15-1 of the Indiana law and denied benefits. The Review Board, on appeal, adopted the referee's finding and conclusions and affirmed the denial of benefits. The Indiana Court of Appeals, accepting the finding that Thomas left his work due to his religious convictions, reversed and held that the State law's provision on voluntary quit, as applied, improperly burdened the claimant's free exercise of his religion. On further appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court, the court held 3-2 that good cause under the State law provision on voluntary quit "must be job-related and objective in character." The court held the quit to be for personal reasons and denied benefits.

  3. U.S. Supreme Court Decision. The Court reversed the Indiana Supreme Court's decision and said that the narrow function of a reviewing court, in the context of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, is to determine whether there was an appropriate finding that the claimant terminated his work because of an honest conviction that such work was forbidden by his religion." An individual may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program--in this case, unemployment compensation. Although the "good cause" requirement of the Indiana law, is neutral on its face and applies to all claimants equally it may in application nonetheless violate the constitutional mandate for governmental neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion. "Where the State conditions receipt of an important benefit upon conduct proscribed by a religious faith, or where it denies such a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief, thereby putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs, a burden upon religion exists. While the compulsion may be indirect, the infringement upon free exercise is nonetheless substantial".

  4. Implications of the Decision. here are several important principles emphasized by the Thomas decision. Before any law can be applied, there must be clear, supportable findings of fact. In the Thomas case, the referee found that the claimant left his work voluntarily due to his religious convictions. That finding was adopted by the Review board, the Indiana Court of Appeals, and the Indiana Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court explicitly took note of the finding, saying "the finding is not challenged in this Court."

    When the question involves First Amendment rights under the Free Exercise Clause, a voluntary leaving for good cause connected with the work, or the employer, may not be limited to a cause that is job-related and objective in character. Religious beliefs are personal and subjective, and they need not be beliefs accepted by all adherents of the particular faith or creed. Religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to other people to merit constitutional protection. The cause for leaving work need not be job-related in the sense that one or more characteristics of the work must have an impact on the individual without consideration of the individual upon whom there is the impact. The Court said that in considering whether there is an infringement of the claimant's free exercise rights, the adjudicator must take into account his religious beliefs as an important ingredient of good cause.

    The prohibition against forcing an individual to choose between an important benefit, such as unemployment compensation, and a right is not limited to First Amendment rights. In Nash v. Flordia Industrial Commission, 389 U.S. 235 (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court applied an analogous principle. The state agency denied benefits under the labor dispute disqualification provision of the State law, because the claimant had filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board following a layoff by the employer, alleging that she was laid off by reason of union activities rather than lack of work. Her complaint was still pending when she returned to work. The Court held that by making the filing of an unfair labor practice charge determinative of benefit entitlement and applying the labor dispute disqualification., the State violated the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. The State's act was coercive, tending directly to frustrate enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act. The principle seems to be that an individual cannot be required to forfeit unemployment benefits under State law as a condition of exercising rights under Federal law. The State law must give way to the Federal law under the Supremacy Clause.

  5. Action Required. SESAs are requested to bring the Court's decision and its principles to the attention of all appropriate staff.