Published on the Portland Tribune on Sep 12th, 2008 (here).

Church of the Holy Light of the Queen fears feds will seize religion’s leaves
By Nick Budnick

The Portland Tribune, Sep 12, 2008, Updated Sep 12, 2008 (10 Reader comments)

sARAH TOOR and wbenjamin.org

Oregon’s U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut is the focus of a federal lawsuit by a religious sect that uses the plant Ayahuasca in its rites.
The Portland and Ashland outposts of a Brazil-based Christian sect known for ingesting a hallucinogenic tea during worship have filed suit in federal court demanding that Uncle Sam — and Oregon’s top federal prosecutor, Karin Immergut — back away from their tea leaves.

Santo Daime (pronounced Die-May) is described as a sect that blends Catholicism and shamanistic Brazilian beliefs, founded in the Brazilian Amazon. It centers on a tea called ayahuasca, whose leaves — a blend of two different Amazonian plants — contain a hallucinogenic drug called DMT, or Dimethyltriptamine.

In 1999, federal agents searched the home of Jonathan Goldman, the head of the Ashland-based Oregon branch of Santo Daime, called the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen, where they intercepted a shipment of these leaves. And now it appears that Oregon church members are worried that another crackdown is, well, brewing.

Members of the Oregon branch of the Santo Daime sect — including Alexandra Bliss Yeager, the head of its Portland branch, Church of the Divine Rose — filed suit in federal court in Medford last month asking for a temporary restraining order against U.S. Attorney General Robert Mukasey, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Immergut, and the federal Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who oversees enforcement of federal drug law.

Judge rules against church
Noting that the Oregon Board of Pharmacy has approved the use of ayahuasca tea for religious purposes, the suit cites “the continuing threat of arrest and prosecution of members of the Church who attempt to bring the tea in from Brazil or hold services,” adding that “Plaintiffs are still in great fear that defendants’ agents and employees will arrest them and throw them in jail for practicing their religion, even in Oregon.”

On Wednesday, in federal court in Medford, federal prosecutors faced off with the church’s attorney, Roy Haber of Eugene, and drew a split decision from federal judge Owen Panner. Haber’s bid for an immediate temporary injunction protecting church members’ religious freedom to drink tea was rejected, but Panner characterized the case as an important one and granted an expedited trial date of Nov. 12.

After the hearing, asked if the church fears an imminent arrest, Haber declined to comment, saying, “I’m not going to characterize it.” He added that he would not allow church members to comment. “There will not be any statements made,” he said. “That is categorical.”

He also said that a reporter would not be allowed to attend the church’s services in Ashland or Portland.

Faulted for not seeking waiver
How active the Church of the Divine Rose is in Portland is unclear. A Web page for the Village Ballroom in Northeast Portland suggested that church members met there once last year. Another Web page stated that 20 female members of the Oregon church met in Portland twice to discuss, among other things, ways to strengthen their charitable activities on behalf of women in Brazil. However, the Multnomah County Assessor’s Office has no record of Yeager’s church applying for any sort of religious tax exemption.

Yeager did not respond to an e-mail from the Portland Tribune, and other church members either declined to comment or did not respond to voicemails and e-mails.

It is unclear what, if any, action the federal government may be contemplating against the church in Oregon. A reply brief filed by federal Department of Justice lawyers neither confirms nor denies any ongoing investigation. Instead, it faults the church for not applying for a waiver of federal drug law from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The church’s lawsuit described its religious beliefs as follows: “It is believed that only by taking the tea can a Church member have a direct experience with Jesus Christ, believed by members of the Church to be a savior.”

The suit also maintains that the level of DMT in its tea is not enough to present a “high potential for abuse.”

nickbudnick@portlandtribune.com

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