Sherbert v. Verner

Following is the case brief for Sherbert v. Verner, United States Supreme Court, (1963)

Case summary for Sherbert v. Verner:

  • Sherbert was fired because she could not work on Saturday’s for religious reasons.
  • She subsequently filed for unemployment benefits with the state and was denied.
  • Sherbert appealed the state courts decision’s claiming that her denial for unemployment benefits was unconstitutional.
  • The Court held that denying unemployment benefits imposes a burden on an individual’s right to the free exercise of religion and is unconstitutional absent a compelling government interest that is carried out by the least restrictive means.

Sherbert v. Verner Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

Mrs. Adeil Sherbert, a Seventh Day Adventist, observed Saturday as the Sabbath and told her employer she would not be able to work on that day due to religious reasons. As a result, she was fired and subsequently filed for unemployment under South Carolina’s Worker’s Compensation laws. Sherbert’s former employer refused to pay her benefits. Verner claimed that Sherbert was not entitled to unemployment benefits since she failed to accept suitable work, without cause, when she was fired.

Procedural History:

The trial court found for Verner and in response Sherbert appealed to the state supreme court. The state supreme court affirmed the trial court’s decision and Sherbert appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

States cannot require a person to work on their Sabbath and then deny them unemployment after discharging them for not working on their Sabbath.

Issue and Holding:

May a state deny unemployment benefits to an individual who refuses to accept work due to religious beliefs under the Constitution? No.


The Supreme Court reversed the state supreme court’s judgment.


The government may not impose a substantial burden on an individual’s right to exercise their religious beliefs. When the government’s action equates to a substantial burden, it must prove that it is furthering a compelling state interest in the least restrictive manner.

Here, denying unemployment benefits does imposes a burden on Sherbert’s free exercise of religion, as denying benefits pressures Sherbert to sacrifice an important component of her religion. In addition, the state has failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in denying Sherbert unemployment benefits and has failed to show that their method of denial is the least restrictive manner in accomplishing its goal.

It is important to note that although the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides absolute protection for an individuals religious beliefs, it does not necessarily protect all overt acts linked with religious beliefs.

Despite this, the regulated acts must posture a substantial threat to peace, public safety or order and Sherbert’s objection to working on her Sabbath does not constitute any of the above.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Dissenting (Harlan):

Sherbert was not awarded unemployment benefits because the state court found that she refused to work. The situations which warrant special treatment to individuals regarding their religious rights are not plentiful and should not be established in this case.


This case outlined the distinction of protection regarding the free exercise of religion. Later on the Supreme Court extended this right in restricting a state from denying benefits to individuals who are religious observers.

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