US Supreme Court Allows Religious Hallucinogenic Tea

Ayahoasca being preparedAyahoasca being preparedThe 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 today said the church, a 130-member branch of a Brazilian denomination, is protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The justices upheld a preliminary injunction barring federal prosecution of church leaders.

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 case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 04-1084.

From Bloomberg News

Supreme Court sides with church in tea dispute

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.

The justices sent the case back to a federal appeals court, which could consider more evidence.

Roberts, writing his second opinion since joining the court, said that religious freedom cases can be difficult “but Congress has determined that courts should strike sensible balances.”

The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 04-1084.

From ABC News

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