Church in Court Battle for Cannabis Sacrament

CANNABIS CULTURE – Members of the Church of the Universe ‘s G13 Mission have asked the Canadian Superior Court for an exemption to use marijuana as a religious sacrament in a case currently unfolding in Toronto.

Brother Peter Styrsky and Brother Sharooz Kharaghani have started a constitutional challenge to Canada’s pot laws and have asked for Charter protection from prohibition, arguing it violates their freedom to practice religion.

The case stems from the 2006 raid and arrest of over 20 members of the Church, who all originally faced charges that were eventually dropped.

Cannabis historian and Cannabis Culture contributor Chris Bennett will be an expert witness during the trial, and will also step into the court room for his own religious right Charter challenge in coming months.

Read more about cannabis’ historical role in religion.

Check Cannabis Culture for updates on the G13 case as they become available.


Church seeks OK to smoke ‘sacred’ marijuana

by Sam Pazzano, Toronto Sun

A Toronto church — the “Church of the Universe” — asked a Superior Court judge Wednesday for an exemption to the country’s marijuana laws.

The Church of the Universe views cannabis as a sacred substance whose consumption brings them closer to God, lawyers Paul Lewin and George Filipovic asserted.

It’s believed to be the first time a Canadian court has been asked to define whether a religion’s illegal practices are protected by the Charter of Rights.

“They believe cannabis is the Tree of Life and that consuming and sharing of it puts them in a more peaceful and reflective state where they are closer to God,” the lawyers wrote in documents filed in court.

“They believe that cannabis consumption, although joyous, is not an end in itself but rather it is an important part of the road to greater understanding of God and the universe.”

The religion teaches that Jesus Christ was anointed with a holy oil, which had a key ingredient of “keneh bosom,” which translates as cannabis, court heard.

The lawyers represent Brothers Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani, minister-members of the Beaches Mission of God, Assembly of The Church of the Universe at 1905 Queen St. E.

The pacifist and humanitarian church has two golden rules: Do not hurt yourself and do not hurt others.

By outlawing marijuana, the state is infringing on the Universe church-goers’ charter right of freedom of religion, the lawyers said.

Styrsky and Kharaghani were charged with trafficking marijuana after they allegedly sold pot to two undercover cops who infiltrated their church as members in 2006.

The ministers’ lawyers are asking Madam Justice Thea Herman to strike down the laws prohibiting the possession, cultivation and distribution of cannabis-related substances because it violates the Church of the Universe’s right to practise its religion. Or, the lawyers suggested in court documents, that the judge could exempt the two accused and all members of this church and other pot-using religions from prosecution for marijuana laws.

Lawyers Nick Devlin and Donna Polgar of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada argued the applicants’ sale of marijuana and “the beliefs underlying it, don’t possess the essential characteristics of religion.”

“The COU is about using marijuana in whatever way the user chooses. This hardly conforms to the basic purpose of religious movements,” the federal government’s lawyers said in their documents.

“Simply put, the mere fact that one profoundly enjoys using marijuana does not beget a constitutional right to traffic it commercially.”

The court should “weed out” frivolous claims, they added.

– Article from The Toronto Sun.


Pot key to’church,’court told

by Shannon Kari, The National Post

Mother Teresa, Pierre Berton and “the tree of life” were all invoked yesterday as spiritual guideposts by a senior member of a Toronto church seeking a religious exemption to the country’s marijuana laws.

The references were part of testimony by Brother Peter Styrsky in Ontario Superior Court, as he explained his transformation from agitated delivery driver to a more spiritually content person as a minister within the Church of the Universe.

“I used to be very angry,” Mr. Styrsky said. The affable witness explained that his life changes were due in part to marijuana use. “It is a high. But it is not just recreational. It’s like a connection to God.”

“That is how I describe it. I understand a lot more than I did,” Mr. Styrsky said.

Mr. Styrsky and Brother Sharooz Kharaghani have launched a constitutional challenge to marijuana prohibitions, which began this week in Ontario Superior Court, arguing that it violates freedom of religion protections in the Charter of Rights.

For the first time, a court in Canada is being asked to set out a framework to decide whether a group and its practices qualify for Charter protection on religious grounds.

Experts on the history of psychoactive drug use in mainstream religions, as well as the criteria necessary to qualify as a religion, are scheduled to testify at the four-week hearing before Justice Thea Herman.

Mr. Styrsky and Mr. Kharaghani were charged with marijuana trafficking offences in September 2006 for allegedly selling street-level amounts of cannabis to Toronto police officers.

The two men are ministers at the “G13 Mission” in the Beaches section of Toronto, which is a church, an organic plant store and allegedly an illegal source of marijuana.

Marijuana is referred to as “the tree of life” in the Church of the Universe, which has 4,000 members in Canada. “Cannabis consumption, although joyous, is not an end in itself but rather it is an important part of the road to greater understanding of God and the universe. If everybody consumed cannabis, the world would be a more peaceful, respectful, joyous and spiritually curious place,” their lawyers Paul Lewin and George Filipovic state in written arguments filed with the court.

The Church is not seeking an absolute right to consume and distribute marijuana, only for religious purposes with regulations similar to those in place for medical users, explained Mr. Lewin.

The federal government is arguing that the Church of the Universe is a “parody” of a religion. “Most people turn to religion as a moral guide. The Church of the Universe offers no teachings in this crucial realm beyond a single platitudinous tenet: Do no harm,” state federal Crown lawyers Nicholas Devlin and Donna Polgar. “The Church of the Universe offers only a single-point of belief, namely that people should use marijuana,” the Crown writes.

The federal government concedes that the case is unique since normally courts have been asked to determine if a practice is actually part of a recognized religion. The task for Judge Herman is to decide if the marijuana-based group’s practices are religious in nature, the Crown notes.

“However challenging, it is important for the courts to set a threshold for entry into the tent of religious protection which weeds out frivolous or insufficient claims,” the federal Crown writes.

The evidence at the hearing began with a somewhat unusual and lengthy explanation of objects brought from the G13 Mission, to try to show that it is a place of worship. There were small paintings, plaques and a number of books from its library.

Mr. Lewin would hold out each book and Mr. Styrsky would offer an observation. The works included a biography of Pope John Paul and two books about Mother Teresa. “She is dear to my heart. I think she really reflected what the Catholic Church should be doing,” Mr. Styrsky said.

Some books by Pierre Berton are in the library, in part because of his public praise for marijuana use before he died.

There was also a study of Native American spirituality by Carlos Castaneda. “He is a spiritual mentor to Sharooz. I find him a little hard to read,” noted Mr. Styrsky.

An advocate of organic farming, Mr. Styrksy appeared somewhat embarrassed when shown a photo of a potato chip dispensing machine at the G13 Mission, along with plants, seeds and marijuana paraphernalia.

“I don’t think they are that healthy,” he said about potato chips. “But some of our members have requested them, so we make them available.”

———

DEFINING RELIGIONS

Court findings in other countries.

-Church of the New Faith (1983)-Australian High Court “Religious belief is not by itself a religion. Religion is also concerned, at least to some extent, with a relationship between man and the supernatural order and with supernatural influence upon his life and conduct.”

-United States vs. Meyers (1996) 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

In a similar case where a claim was made for religious protection for marijuana use, the court said that religious movements must have certain characteristics. “Address ultimate ideas about life, purpose and death. Contain metaphysical beliefs, which transcend the physical and apparent world. Contain a moral and ethical system. Be Comprehensive. Have a founder or prophet.”

-Prince vs. President of Law Society of Good Hope (2002) — Constitutional Court of South Africa

A challenge to the marijuana laws was made on behalf of the Rastafari religion. The court found the prohibition was a justified infringement of freedom of religion.

Selected characteristics needed for religious protection under the Charter of Rights

– They presuppose either supernatural dimensions or ultimate experiences that transcend but also transform everyday life.

– They help people live with fundamental paradoxes of the human condition and respond to existential questions that emerge from it.

– They rely on symbol systems that give coherence to both personal and communal life, apart from doing anything else, religion provides the glue that holds communities together.

– They presuppose both sacred time and sacred space.

– They find primary expression in forms such as myth, scripture, hagiography and ritual.

Source: federal government experts

– Article from The National Post.


Smoking cannabis a religious right, court told

by Peter Small, The Toronto Star

Rev. Brother Peter Styrsky sits in the witness box and answers his lawyer’s questions with a crinkly smile.

With his grey beard, white hemp skullcap and glasses on his nose, he looks more like an avuncular rabbi than an accused drug trafficker.

But Styrsky, 52, and Rev. Brother Shahrooz Kharaghani, 31, are charged with trafficking in marijuana and hashish after police raided their church — Beaches Mission of God — on Queen St. E. on Oct. 25, 2006.

In a constitutional challenge to Canada’s drug laws, however, the two men argue that the cannabis plant is sacred to their religion, the Assembly of the Church of the Universe (COU), which claims about 35 active ministers and 4,000 members across Canada.

“It’s the most spiritual thing that has ever happened to me,” Styrsky testified Wednesday.

The defendants are asking Ontario Superior Court Justice Thea Herman to rule that Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act has no force or effect with regards to cannabis because it infringes on their freedom of religion.

Cannabis is a sacred substance whose consumption brings adherents closer to God, Styrsky told his lawyer Paul Lewin.

“Every time we use it, that connection is there and is undeniable,” said Styrsky, who ran for Toronto mayor in 2006, getting 945 votes.

The Crown argues otherwise, however. The men’s sale of marijuana and the beliefs underlying it lack the essential characteristics of a religion, prosecutors say.

“The COU offers no insight or answers into the existential questions (of) ‘ultimate concern’ which are the chief domain of religion; offers no comprehensive system of belief by which to live and offers no moral or ethical code,” federal Crowns Nicholas Devlin and Donna Polgar say in written submissions.

“It offers only marijuana — however and wherever individuals want it.”

The motion to strike down Canada’s cannabis prohibitions is expected to take a month, with both sides calling several witnesses. The Crown will draw on the testimony of religious experts.

It is the third time church members have raised religious Charter issues in defence of their cannabis use, but this is the fullest airing yet of the question.

To bolster the church’s claim to be a religious institution, Lewin presented to his client for comment various pieces of signage, framed artwork and boxes of religious books that filled the church — also known as the G13 Mission — at the time of the raid.

Styrsky smiled benignly at a framed print of a stylized marijuana plant that was displayed prominently in the church: “In a nutshell, that’s our cross. It’s a tree, tree of life, tree of knowledge. It’s the basis of our religion,” he said.

Lewin and Kharaghani’s lawyer, George Filipovic, are also challenging the law on a broader basis: that it violates all religions that are based on beliefs in the inherent goodness of the marijuana plant, such as the Rastafarians.

But the Crown argues that even if the court finds that the church’s activities are protected as religious practices, the law’s prohibitions on trafficking are “reasonable and demonstrably justifiable limits” to the freedom of religion.

The pre-trial hearing continues Thursday.

– Article from The Toronto Star.

Comments

13 Comments

  1. Grandma on

    I give thanks and praise often God for Chris Bennett and his informative and insightful writings on the role of cannabis in religion. Thanks to his publishing this research and commentary, I have been awakened and I see the light. Cannabis is true religion.

    To be a Cantheist, it is not necessary to to formally associate with a worldy organization or dress or worship in a manner like today’s empty and God-less churches. In fact, the Gnostic texts state that with God’s own Spirit to guide you, you do not even need an earthly teacher. All that is needed is you and the cannabis and your willing spirit to receive God’s inspiration and direction in your life. Perhaps you prefer to use the term, Higher Power. It is all good.

    I testify to the world that I have been truly transformed and spiritually healed by this “plant of renown,” the Tree of Life. The healing power of cannabis is like no other. It is truly a sacred plant, and I hope to live to honor its existence.

    I say these things in the name of Christ. Amen.

  2. renney b. on

    the problem is not the religion; it is prohibition of cannabis that has brought these dear brothers to stand for their constitution right to worship as they believe. so, those who wish to discriminate against a belief system, to justify their need to persecute and control another persons choice are wrong… there are so many kind of isms in the world but, the violent take down of our human rights and freedoms will never be tolerated… this war on drugs that we are in today is mainly about economics and greed that the powers that be try to force on the citizens of the planet and this too is wrong… why should i be force to wear wool if my choice is to wear hemp!!!

  3. Anonymous on

    Marihuana’s not a tree? how do you define “tree” grande horticulturist. Go to India and you’ll find a marihuana tree growing in almost every yard. It may not have bark because it’s a tropical tree (you big expert you) but it does have a trunk and it wouldn’t come out the ground easily, either. BTW – this moronic babybaiter couldn’t lift Bill Maher’s jockstrap.

  4. Anonymous on

    I am regularly surprised by how smallminded and negative in content some of the comments posted to this site are. I would prefer not to read them, however ridicule ia probably a better way of dealing with them than suppression.

  5. Brian Kerr on

    The only people who can define a religion are the ones in it.

    Government has no role in defining what is or is not a religion.

  6. Anonymous on

    I commend Chris for restraining himself from deleting my posts, if he has that power. Maybe CC is actually starting to respect freedom of speech on it’s forums and blogs now. That’s certainly progress. A few months ago it was like China around here. I think they’ll find that it is more productive to leave posts like mine up. Avoiding the issues rarely leads to progress.

  7. Anonymous on

    What is the purpose of the hats anyway? Why would they make such an arbitrary and senseless rule and especially why would they require that you wear it in all identification pictures so you will be embarrassed every time you use the ID? Do the brothers want everyone to think they are Jews? That’s exactly what people will think. It was dumb when the Jews did it and it’s dumb when these guys do it. Wouldn’t be quite so bad if they were attractive hats, like a nice fedora, but Jew hats just look like you bought a hat that was way too small. Anyway, point being that the hat rule only illustrates how silly the COU is.

    Then, of course, there is the requirement of the Tree of Life in order to worship their god. Where’s they get that from? Even the Jews don’t say that. Why the hell would you need a tree that only ever grew in the mythical Garden of Eden? That’s like saying you need a moonrock to worship god. Guess he won’t be getting much worshiping then.

  8. Anonymous on

    I want to say that I personally consider the COU to be a real religion.

    I ordered Ayahuasca vines from the urban shaman store twice and had an experience more powerful and meaningful than I could have imagined. I dieted for two weeks, contemplated my intentions as the church would teach, and prayed to the goddess I had met on Salvia D. for a week, stating my reasons for wanting to know certain things, and I did learn them in a way I saw afterward that I could have never learned before, at least not within a day or even many years. It’s been well over a year now, and I would need to brew another pot to properly mull these over again, but I was able to make steps toward an important change in my life in the months after that which I hadn’t been able to make for years.

    So yeah, the Church of the Universe is religious.

  9. Anonymous on

    Just calling a spade a spade. The case is silly and doomed to utter failure. Just thought I should point that out for new viewers who might actually be lured into joining the god worshiping weed cult because of things Chris writes, which are usually quite erroneous. The COU wears no clothes, somebody had to say it.

    I hope there are some photos of Chris in court (or going into court if cameras aren’t allowed inside) because you will see just how weird the weed cult is when he shows up wearing a funny hat. That’s right, that’s one of the cult’s requirements;

    “Beliefs and Worship!

    Why we cover our heads in Courts
    Related Story Counsel to the Damned

    The Assembly recognizes the mandate of its members to cover their heads and wear sacred head gear such as a Canaban or Canadan or Yarmulke, as required by their religious beliefs, and especially in any association with government agencies and/or the government itself.

    Instances are, in court, for drivers licenses, any other official government picture, any picture identification of any kind and in other cases that might arise.” http://www.iamm.com/faq.htm#Heads

    Chris will look precious in his little cult hat, don’t you think? What you don’t know is that they all have tinfoil lining to keep out the radio waves that they think their enemies use to try to subvert them to normalcy.

  10. Anonymous on

    I think anyone reading posts on here see the trend; there are some who make ridiculous arguments. Get shredded in depth by the person they’re attempting to flame, and then disappear. Herb or tree? … that’s your argument? Hmm grows over 10 feet tall in a season… nah no one back then would call it a tree. Soo weak.

    “Oh don’t tell me they think..”
    Really, you’re telling me you DO “think”?

    Nice Bill Maher impression, wait are you making religious flames or anti cannabis flames? Why are you such an f’-ing flamer anyway?

  11. Anonymous on

    From http://www.iamm.com/man-cu.htm ;

    CHURCH CREDO

    We believe that the Tree of Life is necessary to our understanding and

    worship of Almighty God.

    We believe that the Tree of Life opens a path to spiritual growth and

    connection with Almighty God and us, the Children.

    We believe that the Tree of Life is for the healing of the nations.

    Revelation Chapter 22.

    We believe that everyone has the right to worship God, to explore and

    create their own understanding of spirituality and growth in connection with God.

    First God then Humanity, then Government.

    We believe in standing and kneeling before Almighty God and no other.

    As Exhibit A just showed, the COU is a bunch of god worshiping wackos. Yep, they actually think they have a god and that they should worship it. If that ain’t crazy, what is? They also seem to have an obsession with the idea of the Tree of Life. Dunno why. I wouldn’t think a date tree would be all that fascinating. Oh don’t tell me they really think Cannabis was the biblical Tree of Life. I have to think that if there really was a tree called the Tree of Life that it probably wasn’t an herbaceous annual, like Cannabis is. This is an herb, Chris, and this is a tree. See the difference? Tree is made of wood, herb is made of herb. Tree lives for many years, herb doesn’t. Now if the Bible mentioned an HERB of Life, then Chris might have a case.

  12. Anonymous on

    From the above article;

    “Lawyers Nick Devlin and Donna Polgar of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada argued the applicants’ sale of marijuana and “the beliefs underlying it, don’t possess the essential characteristics of religion.”

    “The COU is about using marijuana in whatever way the user chooses. This hardly conforms to the basic purpose of religious movements,” the federal government’s lawyers said in their documents.

    “Simply put, the mere fact that one profoundly enjoys using marijuana does not beget a constitutional right to traffic it commercially.” The court should “weed out” frivolous claims, they added.” end quote

    Chris Bennett should have chosen a longstanding major religion that uses Cannabis as a sacrament, like Hinduism, instead of that made up weed smoking club he joined for some unknown reason, probably plain ol’ very poor judgment or the Scientologists turned him down, could be either one.

    Bennett only gets one chance at this. After he’s laughed out of court, along with his merry band of stoners, because of very valid arguments against the COU being a real religion and not a pot smoking club masquerading as something other than that, Bennett will never get another such chance. What could he do, say that he got tired of the COU and decided that the Hindus were right after all so now he wants a new case using a real religion? Oh yeah, they’ll believe that. Bennett may actually have had some kind of chance of success if he only hadn’t joined that weed smoking cult, which literally anybody other than COU members can see that it is. I have a feeling that seven judges, or even four judges, will be convinced that COU is anything other than a bunch of crazy people who don’t want the police killing their buzz. Can’t blame them for trying. Zero chance of success though.

    Just my personal opinion. Unfortunately, one cult member is actually a moderator of this website, which I find rather imprudent of Marc Emery, so you can expect this post to be deleted as soon as he sees it. That’s what cults do, suppress all dissenting opinions and then attack the person who expressed those opinions and call them a “scumbag agitator” or something similar. Ain’t that right Chris? Isn’t that how it works? Tell me you haven’t done exactly that on NUMEROUS occasions to numerous people? That’s your first clue that you’re a fully programed cult member. Don’t remember that night, do you? Remember when the brothers gave you that lemonade with the funny taste. No, you don’t. That whole night is a complete blank. Then afterward you went around saying how great the COU is and all hail the brothers. Programing, Chris, programing, programing, programing, all hail the brothers, programing. Sound familiar?

  13. Anonymous on

    Hey wait a second, what’s with the logo? Why is the logo for CotU an eye inside of a triangle?