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.”



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.