By  on Fri, Feb 3, 2012

New Mexico members of a tiny Christian, spiritist congregation with roots in Brazil and practices that include use of a sacred hallucinogenic tea, practiced their religion for 14 years in an Arroyo Hondo yurt east of Santa Fe without incident or complaint.

Uniao Espírita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV, had won a legal battle to use the tea that went from New Mexico federal court in 2002 to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It next moved forward with plans to build a permanent structure on the same property it had been using close to Old Las Vegas Highway and Interstate 25.

The UDV alleges in a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court that it was stopped cold when the Santa Fe County Commission voted to overrule staff recommendations and turn down the church’s building application, in violation of the UDV members’ religious freedom and other rights.

It wasn’t failure to abide by the county land use code that halted the project, the suit contends, but the vocal opposition of neighbors who argued that the proposed temple would harm their neighborhood. The lawsuit asks the court to require the county to grant the church application at the proposed site, and to compensate the UDV for damages suffered as a result of the “discriminatory imposition of and novel enforcement of” the county land use code.

Since it enacted the code in 1981, the county has approved 54 churches, and the proposed temple is the only time a church’s application has been denied, the complaint alleges.

The UDV, Nucleo Santa Fe, and the nonprofit Aurora Foundation claim the Santa Fe County Commission violated the state and federal constitutional rights of UDV members. The suit also claims violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A county spokeswoman said Thursday said County Attorney Steve Ross would have no comment on pending litigation. The County Commission rejected the UDV proposal in a 3-2 vote last year.

Albuquerque attorney Nancy Hollander, who also represented the church in its previous battle to the Supreme Court, said congressional passage of the Religious Land Use Act was to stop religious discrimination “which often hides behind the ordinary sorts of complaints described as Not in My Back Yard.”

The UDV was forced back to court to secure the right to practice its religion, she said.

The commission based its decision in part on its finding that the UDV had “vastly underestimated the water budget necessary,” a finding not supported by evidence in the record, the lawsuit says.

The church hired its own hydrologist, whose analysis found more than sufficient water available.

The UDV originated in the 1950s in Brazil, where it now has 17,000 followers and 150 temples.

Central to the religion is the use of hoasca, a tea made from a blend of two plants native to the Amazon River Basin. UDV members in the United States import the sacrament from Brazil.

The Santa Fe congregation was formally recognized by the church’s highest spiritual authority in 1996, in the first such ceremony outside of Brazil, according to the lawsuit.

Since then, members have celebrated weddings, baptisms and holidays as well as regular services, it says.

The congregation moved to temporary quarters after the membership of the “nucleo” outgrew the yurt, but considers the land in Arroyo Hondo to have special religious significance, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that one category of complaints in opposition to the project – that the temple would increase traffic, noise, cause light pollution and alter the residential character of the neighborhoods – “are belied by the fact that the UDV had previously conducted its religious ceremonies at the location in question for 14 years.”

A second category of “fanciful or misinformed” complaints were based on misunderstandings about the religion itself, primarily regarding hoasca, the suit contends.

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