Employment and Training Administration
Washington, D. C. 20210






July 10, 1989




July 31, 1990











for Regional Management




U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security

  1. Purpose. To advise the State agencies of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security, decided on March 29, 1989.

  2. Background. The appellant, William Frazee, was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits for failure, without good cause, to accept a temporary retail position involving Sunday employment.  Frazee refused the employment because his tenet as a Christian precluded him from working on Sundays.  The denial of benefits was affirmed by the Illinois administrative review board, an Illinois Circuit Court, and the State Appellate Court, which found that since the appellant was not a member of an established religious sect or church and did not claim that his refusal to work resulted from a tenet, belief, or teaching of an established religious body, his personal professed religious belief, although unquestionably sincere, was not good cause for his refusal to work on Sunday.  After the Illinois Supreme Court denied Frazee leave to appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court heard his appeal.

    Frazee is not the first unemployment insurance case in which the Supreme Court has ruled regarding the conflict between work and religious beliefs; however, it is the first such case where the claimant did not belong to an established church or religion.  In Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), the State agency denied benefits to a Sabbatarian who had refused to work on Saturdays.  In Thomas v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), the claimant quit his job following an involuntary transfer to a division which fabricated armaments because his religious beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness forbade participation in such work.  He was then disqualified from receiving benefits on the grounds that he had voluntarily quit.  In Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida, 480 U.S. 136 (1987), the State agency denied benefits to a Seventh-Day Adventist who was discharged following her refusal to work on her Sabbath based on religious beliefs adopted subsequent to her employment.  The Court ruled in each of these cases that disqualification from benefits violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, because these claimants were forced to forfeit unemployment benefits for choosing fidelity to religious beliefs over employment.

  3. U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Frazee. The Court ruled in Frazee that the disqualification from benefits also violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  In its decision, the Court addressed its prior decisions in cases involving conflicts between work and religious beliefs.  The Court stated:

    Our judgements in those cases rested on the fact that each of the claimants had a sincere belief that religion required him or her to refrain from the work in question.  Never did we suggest that unless a claimant belongs to a sect that forbids what his job requires, his belief, however sincere, must be deemed a purely personal preference rather than a religious belief.
    The Court added that membership in an organized religious sect would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held religious beliefs.  However, it expressly rejected the notion that one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause.  The Court, therefore, reversed the decision disqualifying the claimant from receiving benefits.

    The full text of the Court's decision in Frazee is attached.

  4. Effect on the Unemployment Insurance Program. The above cited cases all prohibit the denial of benefits where doing so would force the claimant to choose between sincere religious beliefs (whether or not the claimant is a member of a particular religious sect subscribing to those beliefs) and employment.  The Court did not, however, delineate the outer reaches of religious beliefs entitled to such protection.  Amendments to State law will not be necessary unless the State cannot interpret its current law consistent with the Frazee decision.

  5. Action Required. State agency administrators are requested to provide the above information to appropriate staff.  In addition, State agencies should examine their unemployment insurance laws to make sure that they are consistent with the above decisions.

  6. Inquiries. Direct inquiries to the appropriate Regional Office.

  7. AttachmentCourt Decision in Frazee v. Illinois Department of Employment Security et al.