February 21, 2006

Supreme Court Rules that Religious Group Can Use Illegal Drug in their Worship Services

Court says practice is protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today that the adherents of a small religious group can continue, for now at least, to import and use an illegal drug in their worship services. The court, in a decision written by new Chief Justice John Roberts, held that the federal government had not adequately demonstrated that it had a compelling interest in banning what even federal prosecutors admit is a “sincere religious practice.”

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“This decision essentially clarifies that the federal government must clear a high hurdle before it can ban or curtail religious practice that is in conflict with other laws,” says David Masci, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In October 2005, the Forum published an in-depth backgrounder on the case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, which provides legal and historical analysis of the issues at hand. It can be found at pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=124. An addendum to the backgrounder analyzing the court’s decision and its possible impact on future cases will soon be available on the Forum’s Web site, pewforum.org.

The case involves a church, known as Uniao Do Vegetal or the Union of the Plants, that preaches a brand of “Christian spiritualism” that combines indigenous Brazilian beliefs with contemporary Christian teachings. A central tenet of the UDV faith is a belief that hoasca, a tea containing the illegal hallucinogenic drug diemethyltryptamine (DMT), is sacred and that its use connects members to God.

In 1999, federal agents in Santa Fe, N.M., seized a shipment of hoasca imported from Brazil for use in UDV religious ceremonies. An additional 30 gallons were confiscated when agents searched the house of U.S. church leader Jeffrey Bronfman. No criminal charges were brought against Bronfman, the UDV or individual church members. But 18 months later, the church sued the federal government in a U.S. district court and received a preliminary injunction preventing the confiscation of imported hoasca or the arrest of any UDV members using the drug while the court trial was pending.

UDV claimed that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exempts them from any laws prohibiting the importation and use of hoasca. RFRA states that no federal law shall “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government proves the law furthers a “compelling governmental interest” and that it has been implemented in a way that is “least restrictive” to religious practices. The federal government countered that the courts cannot grant the church an exception to the nation’s drug laws – in this case the 1970 Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which prohibits the use of DMT for any purpose.

At a preliminary hearing to consider the UDV’s request for a preliminary injunction, the government conceded that the criminalization of hoasca “substantially burdened” the church’s religious practice. However, the government argued that it had a compelling interest in protecting the health of UDV members and in preventing the recreational, non-religious or improper use and distribution of DMT. But the district court found that the government’s interests in protecting health and preventing drug abuse did not trump the UDV’s religious freedom to use hoasca. The court therefore granted the preliminary injunction to protect UDV members and leaders from prosecution, a ruling later upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The Supreme Court decision is in line with these earlier rulings. “We conclude that the government has not carried the burden expressly placed on it by Congress in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” wrote Roberts. The injunction stands.

The chief justice also compared the use of hoasca to Peyote, which also contains a banned substance, mescaline, but which has been legally used for decades by Native American tribes as part of their religious rituals. If hundreds of thousands of Native Americans are allowed to use Peyote for their religious ceremonies, Roberts wrote, “it is difficult to see how those same findings alone can preclude any consideration of a similar exception for the 130 or so American members of the UDV who want to practice theirs.”

Roberts was joined by seven other members of the court. The newest member of the court, Samuel Alito, did not participate in the case because he was not yet on the court when O Centro Espirita was argued in November 2005.

It is important to note that the decision only concerns the preliminary injunction issued by the district court. The federal government still has the option to pursue the case by returning to a lower court and attempting to demonstrate that it has a compelling interest in banning hoasca.