Unemployment Compensation When Someone Quits a Job Because of Religious Objections to Selling Alcohol

Most states will let people who quit their jobs collect unemployment compensation only if they had “good cause” for leaving, and if they are available to take another job (unless they have “good cause” for declining that). In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), Adell Sherbert, “a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, was discharged by her South Carolina employer because she would not work on Saturday, the Sabbath Day of her faith. When she was unable to obtain other employment because from conscientious scruples she would not take Saturday work, she filed a claim for unemployment compensation benefits under the South Carolina Unemployment Compensation Act.” The state concluded that she wasn’t entitled to the benefits because she was refusing jobs without “good cause.” But the Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning (in part):

[T]he disqualification for benefits imposes [a] burden on the free exercise of appellant’s religion…. [A]ppellant’s declared ineligibility for benefits derives solely from the practice of her religion, [and] the pressure upon her to forego that practice is unmistakable. The ruling 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 appellant for her Saturday worship….

In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court generally rejected the notion that people are entitled to religious exemptions from generally applicable laws, but preserved the Sherbert doctrine as to unemployment compensation schemes:

The Sherbert test … was developed in a context that lent itself to individualized governmental assessment of the reasons for the relevant conduct…. [A] distinctive feature of unemployment compensation programs is that their eligibility criteria invite consideration of the particular circumstances behind an applicant’s unemployment: “The statutory conditions … provided that a person was not eligible for unemployment compensation benefits if, ‘without good cause,’ he had quit work or refused available work. The ‘good cause’ standard created a mechanism for individualized exemptions.” … [O]ur decisions in the unemployment cases stand for the proposition that where the State has in place a system of individual exemptions, it may not refuse to extend that system to cases of “religious hardship” without compelling reason.

So here’s an interesting incident I just ran across: A woman, A.M., was working at a convenience store. The store got a permit to sell beer, and the woman then quit, because her religious principles forbade her from participating in the sale of alcohol. The unemployment compensation board denied the benefits, and the woman appealed.

What should the result be?