“U.S. Supreme Court Says Church Can Use Hallucinogen
Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. Supreme Court, saying law enforcement goals in some cases must yield to religious rights, ruled that the Bush administration can’t block a New Mexico church from using a hallucinogenic tea.
In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court said the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the church, a 130-member branch of a Brazilian denomination. The justices upheld a preliminary injunction barring federal prosecution of church leaders.
Roberts, ruling in his first religious-freedom case, rejected the Bush administration’s contention that only a categorical ban on the substance would adequately prevent abuse and diversion to non-religious use.
“The government’s argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions,” Roberts wrote. He said Congress instead required “striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”
Roberts said federal drug laws already make an exception that lets Native American tribes use peyote in religious ceremonies.
The case put the Bush administration in the unusual position of opposing
religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, both of which backed the New Mexico church. The government contended the tea, known as hoasca, is dangerous and illegal.
The church, O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, argued that its members believe the ritualistic use of hoasca brings them closer to God. The church’s U.S. branch is led by Jeffrey Bronfman, a second cousin of Warner Music Group Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act says the federal government can’t restrict religious activities except to meet a compelling interest. The law applied to the states as well until a 1997 Supreme Court decision that said that aspect was unconstitutional.
RFRA, as the law is known, was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that said generally applicable laws in most cases need not make exceptions to accommodate church practices. That ruling limited the scope of the constitutional protection for religious freedom.
The high court today concluded the Justice Department hadn’t met its burden under the 1993 law. The ruling upheld a decision by a Denver-based federal appeals court.
New Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. didn’t take part in the 8-0 decision, which was argued Nov. 1, well before his Senate confirmation.
South American Religion
Today’s case didn’t directly concern the scope of the Constitution’s free-exercise clause, although the test laid out by the 1993 law is similar to the standard used by the Supreme Court before its 1990 decision.
Hoasca contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a hallucinogenic substance restricted under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. The Justice Department says DMT can lead to depression, intense anxiety, disorientation and psychosis and that the drug is a particular danger to children who are church members.
UDV, as the church is known, mixes Christian theology and indigenous South American beliefs. Founded in 1961 by a rubber tapper, the religion has 8,000 members in Brazil. Its name translates to The Union of Plants Charitable Spiritual Center.
The dispute between UDV and the government began in 1999, when U.S. Customs inspectors intercepted a shipment from Brazil of three drums that contained the drug. Authorities later searched the Bronfmans’ home and seized 30 gallons of hoasca.
The UDV then sued, seeking a court order barring the government from enforcing federal drug laws against the church or its leaders.
The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 04-1084.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Feb 21, 10:42 AM EST
“Court Allows Church’s Hallucinogenic Tea
By GINA HOLLAND Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that a small congregation in New Mexico may use hallucinogenic tea as part of a four-hour ritual intended to connect with God.
Justices, in their first religious freedom decision under Chief Justice John Roberts, moved decisively to keep the government out of a church’s religious practice. Federal drug agents should have been barred from confiscating the hoasca tea of the Brazil-based church, Roberts wrote in the decision.
The tea, which contains an illegal drug known as DMT, is considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, which has a blend of Christian beliefs and South American traditions. Members believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea, which is consumed twice a month at four-hour ceremonies.
New Justice Samuel Alito did not take part in the case, which was argued last fall before Justice Sandra Day O’Connor before her retirement. Alito was on the bench for the first time on Tuesday.
Roberts said that the Bush administration had not met its burden under a federal religious freedom law to show that it could ban “the sect’s sincere religious practice.”
The chief justice had also been skeptical of the government’s position in the case last fall, suggesting that the administration was demanding too much, a “zero tolerance approach.”
The Bush administration had argued that the drug in the tea not only violates a federal narcotics law, but a treaty in which the United States promised to block the importation of drugs including dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT.
“The government did not even submit evidence addressing the international consequences of granting an exemption for the (church),” Roberts wrote.”