Mail Tribune

A federal appeals court Wednesday agreed to hear a legal challenge by the U.S. attorney general over an Ashland church’s right to use a hallucinogen as part of its service.

Members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen brew a bitter tea containing a South American hallucinogen known as ayahuasca that they say helps them connect with the divine.

U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner in Medford ruled in 2009 the Christian church, with branches in Ashland, Portland and Bend, could continue to use the “Daime tea” as its sacrament under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Panner devised his own criteria for Drug Enforcement Administration oversight.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed a legal challenge in February, asserting Panner’s ruling goes too far in limiting federal regulations concerning controlled substances.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it will prepare a decision at a later date.

The legal challenges began after the leader of the church, Ashland resident Jonathan Goldman, was arrested for possessing Daime tea in May 1999 and jailed for 12 hours before being released. No charges were filed against him.

On Wednesday, Goldman declined to comment on the case.

During ceremonies at the church, also known as the Santo Daime Church, a sacramental tea is ingested that contains minute amounts of ayahuasca, according to a legal brief filed with the federal appeals court in February.

The Santo Daime religion traces its origins to the Amazon region of Brazil in the early 1920s. Mestre Raimundo Irineu Serra, a Catholic, founded the church while working as a rubber tapper in the Amazon forest after he learned about the psychoactive tea from local tribes.

The tea is made up of the boiled bark and stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine mixed with the leaves of a plant, Psychotria viridis, according to the legal brief.

Followers of the church believe the tea contains a divine being of the forest who is believed to be the same as Christ.

“The vine and leaf are not dissimilar to the bread and wine consumed in Catholic churches, which are believed to provide a direct experience with Christ,” according to a legal brief filed by the church on Feb. 12.

Hymns are sung during the service when the tea is ingested.

The church, founded in Ashland, received authorization to form in 1993, according to the court brief.

Holder, in a brief filed in March, stated that Panner’s injunction was unnecessary because existing DEA regulations already make provision for the legitimate use of controlled substances under certain circumstances.

“Indeed, any claim that the operation of DEA’s regulations would amount to a de facto ban on the use of Daime would be frivolous,” the attorney general’s brief stated.

DEA regulations cover issues such as storage and security, record keeping, reasonable inspections and audits, and the prompt reporting of the theft or loss of a controlled substance, the brief stated.

Church attorneys Roy Haber of Eugene and Jack Silver of Santa Rosa, Calif., wrote in their brief to the appeals court that Panner struck a reasonable balance between the church’s interests and the federal government’s.

The attorneys said Panner had to find an equitable way for the church to practice its religion without undue delays or interference from government regulations.

“Judge Panner exercised his discretion to fashion an order that was compatible with religious use of the tea,” the church attorneys wrote.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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