Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. DIV., 450 U.S. 707 (1981)

Author: Justice Burger

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Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. DIV., 450 U.S. 707 (1981)

CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to consider whether the State’s denial of unemployment compensation benefits to the petitioner, a Jehovah’s Witness who terminated his job because his religious beliefs forbade participation in the production of armaments, constituted a violation of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. 444 U.S. 1070 (1980).


Thomas terminated his employment in the Blaw-Knox Foundry & Machinery Co. when he was transferred from the roll foundry to a department that produced turrets for military tanks. He claimed his religious beliefs prevented him from participating in the production of war materials. The respondent Review Board denied him unemployment compensation benefits by applying disqualifying provisions of the Indiana Employment Security Act.{1}

Thomas, a Jehovah’s Witness, was hired initially to work in the roll foundry at Blaw-Knox. The function of that department was to fabricate sheet steel for a variety of industrial uses. On his application form, he listed his membership in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and noted that his hobbies were Bible study and Bible reading. However he placed no conditions on his employment, and he did not describe his religious tenets in any detail on the form.

Approximately a year later, the roll foundry closed, and Blaw-Knox transferred Thomas to a department that fabricated turrets for military tanks. On his first day at this new job, Thomas realized that the work he was doing was weapons related. He checked the bulletin board where in-plant openings were listed, and discovered that all of the remaining departments at Blaw-Knox were engaged directly in the production of weapons. Since no transfer to another department would resolve his problem, he 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. The record does not show that he was offered any nonweapons work by his employer, or that any such work was available.

Upon leaving Blaw-Knox, Thomas applied for unemployment compensation benefits under the Indiana Employment Security Act.{2} At an administrative hearing where he was not represented by counsel, he testified that he believed that contributing to the production of arms violated his religion. He said that, when he realized that his work on the tank turret line involved producing weapons for war, he consulted another Blaw-Knox employee -- a friend and fellow Jehovah’s Witness. The friend advised him that working on weapons parts at Blaw-Know was not "unscriptural." Thomas was not able to "rest with" this view, however. He concluded that his friend’s view was based upon a less strict reading of Witnesses’ principles than his own.

When asked at the hearing to explain what kind of work his religious convictions would permit, Thomas said that he would have no difficulty doing the type of work that he had done at the roll foundry. He testified that he could, in good conscience, engage indirectly in the production of materials that might be used ultimately to fabricate arms -- for example, as an employee of a raw material supplier or of a roll foundry.{3}

The hearing referee found that Thomas’ religious beliefs specifically precluded him from producing or directly aiding in the manufacture of items used in warfare.{4} He also found that Thomas had terminated his employment because of these religious convictions. The referee reported:

Claimant continually searched for a transfer to another department which would not be so armament related; however, this did not materialize, and prior to the date of his leaving, claimant requested a layoff, which was denied; and on November 6, 1975, claimant did quit due to his religious convictions.{5}

The referee concluded nonetheless that Thomas’ termination was not based upon a "good cause [arising] in connection with [his] work," as required by the Indiana unemployment compensation statute. Accordingly, he was held not entitled to benefits. The Review Board adopted the referee’s findings and conclusions, and affirmed the denial of benefits.{6}

The Indiana Court of Appeals, accepting the finding that Thomas terminated his employment "due to his religious convictions," reversed the decision of the Review Board, and held that § 2215-1, as applied, improperly burdened Thomas’ right to the free exercise of his religion. Accordingly, it ordered the Board to extend benefits to Thomas. 178 Ind.App. , 381 N.E.2d 888 (1978).

The Supreme Court of Indiana, dividing 3-2, vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, and denied Thomas benefits. 271 Ind. ___, 391 N. E2d 1127 (1979). With reference to the Indiana unemployment compensation statute, the court said:

It is not intended to facilitate changing employment or to provide relief for those who quit work voluntarily for personal reasons. Voluntary unemployment is not compensable under the purpose of the Act, which is to provide benefits for persons unemployed through no fault of their own.

Good cause which justifies voluntary termination must be job-related and objective in character.

Id. at 391 N.E.2d at 1129 (footnotes omitted). The court held that Thomas had quit voluntarily ,for personal reasons, and therefore did not qualify for benefits. Id. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1130.

In discussing the petitioner’s free exercise claim, the court stated: "A personal philosophical choice, rather than a religious choice, does not rise to the level of a first amendment claim." Id. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1131. The court found the basis and the precise nature of Thomas’ belief unclear -- but it concluded that the belief was more "personal philosophical choice" than religious belief. Nonetheless, it held that, even assuming that Thomas quit for religious reasons, he would not be entitled to benefits: under Indiana law, a termination motivated by religion is not for "good cause" objectively related to the work.

The Indiana court concluded that denying Thomas benefits would create only an indirect burden on his free exercise right, and that the burden was justified by the legitimate state interest in preserving the integrity of the insurance fund and maintaining a stable workforce by encouraging workers not to leave their jobs for personal reasons.

Finally, the court held that awarding unemployment compensation benefits to a person who terminates employment voluntarily for religious reasons, while denying such benefits to persons who terminate for other personal but nonreligious reasons, would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The judgment under review must be examined in light of our prior decisions, particularly Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963).


Only beliefs rooted in religion are protected by the Free Exercise Clause, which, by its terms, gives special protection to the exercise of religion. Sherbert v. Verner, supra; Wisconsinv. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215-216 (1972). The determination of what is a "religious" belief or practice is more often than not a difficult and delicate task, as the division in the Indiana Supreme Court attests.{7} However, the resolution of that question is not to turn upon a judicial perception of the particular belief or practice in question; religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.

In support of his claim for benefits, Thomas testified:

Q. And then when it comes to actually producing the tank itself, hammering it out; that you will not do. . . .

A. That’s right, that’s right when . . . I’m daily faced with the knowledge that these are tanks. . . .

* * * *

A. I really could not, you know, conscientiously continue to work with armaments. It would be against all of the . . religious principles that . . I have come to learn. . . .

271 Ind. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1132. Based upon this and other testimony, the referee held that Thomas "quit due to his religious convictions."{8} The Review Board adopted that finding,{9} and the finding is not challenged in this Court.

The Indiana Supreme Court apparently took a different view of the record. It concluded that,

although the claimant’s reasons for quitting were described as religious, it was unclear what his belief was, and what the religious basis of his belief was.{10}

In that court’s view, Thomas had made a merely "personal philosophical choice, rather than a religious choice."{11}

In reaching its conclusion, the Indiana court seems to have placed considerable reliance on the facts that Thomas was "struggling" with his beliefs, and that he was not able to "articulate" his belief precisely. It noted, for example, that Thomas admitted before the referee that he would not object to

working for United States Steel or Inland Steel . . . produc[ing] the raw product necessary for the production of any kind of tank . . . [because I] would not be a direct party to whoever they shipped it to [and] would not be . . . chargeable in . . . conscience. . . .

271 Ind. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1131. The court found this position inconsistent with Thomas’ stated opposition to participation in the production of armaments. But Thomas’ statements reveal no more than that he found work in the roll foundry sufficiently insulated from producing weapons of war. We see, therefore, that Thomas drew a line, and it is not for us to say that the line he drew was an unreasonable one. Courts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs because the believer admits that he is "struggling" with his position or because his beliefs are not articulated with the clarity and precision that a more sophisticated person might employ.

The Indiana court also appears to have given significant weight to the fact that another Jehovah’s Witness had no scruples about working on tank turrets; for that other Witness, at least, such work was "scripturally" acceptable. Intrafaith differences of that kind are not uncommon among followers of a particular creed, and the judicial process is singularly ill-equipped to resolve such differences in relation to the Religion Clauses. One can, of course, imagine an asserted claim so bizarre, so clearly nonreligious in motivation, as not to be entitled to protection under the Free Exercise Clause; but that is not the case here, and the guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a reljgious sect. Particularly in this sensitive area, it 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.

The narrow function of a reviewing court in this context is to determine whether there was an appropriate finding that petitioner terminated his work because of an honest conviction that such work was forbidden by his religion. Not surprisingly, the record before the referee and the Review Board was not made with an eye to the microscopic examination often exercised in appellate Judicial review. However, judicial review is confined to the facts as found and conclusions drawn. On this record, it is clear that Thomas terminated his employment for religious reasons.



More than 30 years ago, the Court held that a person may not be compelled to choose between the exercise of a First Amendment right and participation in an otherwise available public program. A state may not

exclude individual Catholics, Lutherans, Mohammedans, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Non-believers, Presbyterians, or the members of any other faith because of their faith, or lack of it, from receiving the benefits of public welfare legislation.

Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 16 (1947) (emphasis deleted).

Later, in Sherbert, the Court examined South Carolina’s attempt to deny unemployment compensation benefits to a Sabbatarian who declined to work on Saturday. In sustaining her right to receive benefits, the Court held:

The ruling [disqualifying Mrs. Sherbert from benefits because of her refusal to work on Saturday in violation of her faith] forces her to choose between following the precepts of.her religion and forfeiting benefits, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of her religion in order to accept work, on the other hand. Governmental imposition of such a choice puts the same kind of burden upon the free exercise of religion as would a fine imposed against [her] for her Saturday worship.

374 U.S. at 404.

The respondent Review Board argues, and the Indiana Supreme Court held, that the burden upon religion here is only the indirect consequence of public welfare legislation that the State clearly has authority to enact. "Neutral objective standards must be met to qualify for compensation." 271 Ind. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1130. Indiana requires applicants for unemployment compensation to show that they left work for "good cause in connection with the work." Ibid.

A similar argument was made and rejected in Sherbert, however. It is true that, as in Sherbert, the Indiana law does not compel a violation of conscience. But "this is only the beginning, not the end, of our inquiry." 374 U.S. at 403-404. In a variety of ways, we have said that

[a] regulation neutral on its face may, in its application, nonetheless offend the constitutional requirement for governmental neutrality if it unduly burdens the free exercise of religion.

Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. at 220. Cf. Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. 664 (1970).

Here as in Sherbert, the employee was put to a choice betweell fidelity to religious belief or cessation of work; the coercive impact on Thomas is indistinguishable from Sherbert, where the Court held:

[N]ot only is it apparent that appellant’s declared ineligibility for benefits derives solely from the practice of her religion, but the pressure upon her to forego that practice is unmistakable.

374 U.S. at 404. 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.

The respondents also contend that Sherbert is inapposite because, in that case, the employee was dismissed by the employer’s action. But we see that Mrs. Sherbert was dismissed because she refused to work on Saturdays after the plant went to a 6-day workweek. Had Thomas simply presented himself at the Blaw-Knox plant turret line but refused to perform any assigned work, it must be assumed that he, like Sherbert, would have been terminated by the employer’s action, if no other work was available. In both cases, the termination flowed from the fact that the employment, once acceptable, became religiously objectionable because of changed conditions.


The mere fact that the petitioner’s religious practice is burdened by a governmental program does not mean that an exemption accommodating his practice must be granted. The state may justify an inroad on religious liberty by showing that it is the least restrictive means of achieving some compelling state interest. However it is still true that

[t]he essence of all that has been said and written on the subject is that only those interests of the highest order . . . can overbalance legitimate claims to the free exercise of religion.

Wisconsin v. Yoder, supra, at 215.

The purposes urged to sustain the disqualifying provisio of the Indiana unemployment compensation scheme are twofold: (1) to avoid the widespread unemployment and the consequent burden on the fund resulting if people were permitted to leave jobs for "personal" reasons;{12} and (2) to avoid a detailed probing by employers into job applicants’ religious beliefs. These are by no means unimportant considerations. When the focus of the inquiry is properly narrowed, however, we must conclude that the interests advanced by the State do not justify the burden placed on free exercise of religion.

There is no evidence in the record to indicate that the number of people who find themselves in the predicament of choosing between benefits and religious beliefs is large enough to create "widespread unemployment," or even to seriously affect unemployment -- and no such claim was advanced by the Review Board. Similarly, although detailed inquiry by employers into applicants’ religious beliefs is undesirable, there is no evidence in the record to indicate that such inquiries will occur in Indiana, or that they have occurred in any of the states that extend benefits to people in the petitioner’s position. Nor is there any reason to believe that the number of people terminating employment for religious reasons will be so great as to motivate employers to make such inquiries.

Neither of the interests advanced is sufficiently compelling to justify the burden upon Thomas’ religious liberty. Accordingly, Thomas is entitled to receive benefits unless, as the respondents contend and the Indiana court held, such payment would violate the Establishment Clause.


The respondents contend that to compel benefit payments to Thomas involves the State in fostering a religious faith. There is, in a sense, a "benefit" to Thomas deriving from his religious beliefs, but this manifests no more than the tension between the two Religious Clauses which the Court resolved in Sherbert:

In holding as we do, plainly we are not fostering the "establishment" of the Seventh-day Adventist religion in South Carolina, for the extension of unemployment benefits to Sabbatarians in common with Sunday worshippers reflects nothing more than the governmental obligation of neutrality in the face of religious differences, and does not represent that involvement of religious with secular institutions which it is the object of the Establishment Clause to forestall.

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. at 409. See also Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. at 220-221; Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. at 668-669; O’Hair v. Andrus, 198 U.S.App.D.C.198, 201-204, 613 F.2d 931, 934-937 (1979) (Leventhal, J.) .

Unless we are prepared to overrule Sherbert, supra, Thomas cannot be denied the benefits due him on the basis of the findings of the referee, the Review Board, and the Indiana Court of Appeals that he terminated his employment because of his religious convictions.


JUSTICE BLACKMUN joins Parts I, II, and III of the Court’s opinion. As to Part IV thereof, he concurs in the result.

1. Indiana Code § 22-4-15-1 (Supp. 1978) provides:

With respect to benefit periods including extended benefit periods established subsequent to July 6, 1974, and before July 3, 1977, an individual who has voluntarily left his employment without good cause in connection with the work or who was discharged from his employment for just cause shall be ineligible for waiting period or benefit rights for the week in which the disqualifying separation occurred and until he has subsequently earned remuneration in employment equal to or exceeding the weekly benefit amount of his claim in each of ten (10) weeks. The weeks of a disqualification period remaining at the expiration of an individual’s benefit period will be carried forward to an extended benefit period or to the benefit period of a subsequent claim only if the first week of such extended benefit period or subsequent benefit period falls within ten (10) consecutive weeks from the beginning of the disqualification period imposed on the prior claim.

2. Ind.Code § 22-4-1-1 et seq. (1976 and Supp. 1978).

3. It is reasonable to assume that some of the sheet steel processed in the roll foundry may have found its way into tanks or other weapons; the record, however, contains no evidence or finding on this point.

4. The referee indicated, App. to Pet. for Cert. 2a:

The evidence reveals that approximate [sic] two to three weeks prior to claimant’s date of leaving, the ’Roll Foundry’ was closed permanently and claimant was transferred to the terret [sic] line. [He], at this time, real [sic] realized that all of the other functions at The Blaw-Knox company were engaged in producing arms for the Armament Industry. Claimant’s religious beliefs specifically exempts [sic] claimants from producing or aiding in the manufacture of items used in the advancement of war.

5. Id. at 2a-3a (emphasis added by petitioner).

6. The Review Board, like the referee, found that Thomas had left his job for religious reasons, id. at 5a:

The evidence of record indicates that claimant . . . left his employment voluntarily because his religious beliefs . . . would not allow him to continue to work producing arms. . . .

7. See, e.g., Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961); United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944).

8. Seen. 4, and text at n. 5, supra.

9. Seen. 6, supra.

10. 271 Ind. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1133.

11. Id. at ___, 391 N.E.2d at 1131.

12. A similar interest -- the integrity of the insurance fund -- was advanced and rejected in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 407 (1963).


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Chicago: Burger, "Burger, J., Lead Opinion," Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. DIV., 450 U.S. 707 (1981) in 450 U.S. 707 450 U.S. 710–450 U.S. 720. Original Sources, accessed August 12, 2022,

MLA: Burger. "Burger, J., Lead Opinion." Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. DIV., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), in 450 U.S. 707, pp. 450 U.S. 710–450 U.S. 720. Original Sources. 12 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Burger, 'Burger, J., Lead Opinion' in Thomas v. Review Bd., Ind. Empl. Sec. DIV., 450 U.S. 707 (1981). cited in 1981, 450 U.S. 707, pp.450 U.S. 710–450 U.S. 720. Original Sources, retrieved 12 August 2022, from