Denial of Unemployment Benefits Violated Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment

April 13, 2015

In a recent Georgia Court of Appeals case the Court held that a claimant cannot be denied unemployment benefits following claimant’s termination based on her refusal to work on Saturdays due to her religious beliefs. Lester v. Butler, 2015 WL 1204867 (Mar. 17, 2015). In a unanimous opinion, the Court held that to do so would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religious, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” U.S. Const. amend. I (emphasis added).

Shirley Lester worked as a floor associate at Goodwill of North Georgia, Inc. After her employment began, Lester became a Seventh-Day Adventist and requested that she not be scheduled to work on Saturdays on the basis that it would violate her religious beliefs. Goodwill informed her that it could not guarantee Saturdays off and therefore could not accommodate her request. Lester subsequently missed four Saturday shifts which resulted in her termination pursuant to Goodwill’s disciplinary policy.

Lester filed a claim for unemployment benefits, which was denied by the Georgia Department of Labor (“DOL”) claims examiner and affirmed by the DOL board hearing officer. The DOL determined that Lester was disqualified from receiving benefits because her reasons for being absent “were personal in nature and within her control.” The Superior Court affirmed the DOL order and Lester appealed.

In her appeal, Lester argued that pursuant to the First Amendment, she cannot be disqualified from unemployment benefits for exercising a genuine religious belief prohibiting her from working on Saturdays. The Court agreed with Lester and reversed and remanded the case. The facts of this case paralleled Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm. of Fla., where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the denial of benefits violated the employee’s First Amendment Rights. 480 U.S. 136, 94 L. Ed.2d 190 (1987). In Hobbie, Petitioner became a Seventh-Day Adventist after she began working for her employer and was fired when she subsequently refused to work on Saturdays based on her religious beliefs. Id. at 138. Petitioner was subsequently denied unemployment benefits and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed holding that where a state denies a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious beliefs it violates the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Id. at 141.

Practice Point: If you are an employee who has been terminated or denied unemployment benefits on the basis of your religious beliefs please contact our firm immediately at 404-873-8048 or

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