Tea Parley: Supreme Court To Rule On Religious Liberty Case

Is the free exercise of religion broad enough to allow a small New Mexico church the ritual use of a tea containing a hallucinogenic drug the federal government has outlawed?

The U.S. Supreme Court may provide us some answers. Yesterday the high court announced it would review a case from New Mexico involving the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal. An American branch of the Brazilian-based church is fighting a federal drug law and an international treaty banning a chemical, DMT, found in hoasca tea.

The church, founded in 1961, practices a faith that incorporates Christian theology and indigenous South American beliefs. Uniao do Vegetal's web site describes itself as a religious society, "whose objective is to contribute to human development through the improvement of intellectual qualities and moral and spiritual values...." Additionally, the site states that the "ritualistic use of Hoasca tea among Amazonian peoples predates the arrival of Europeans in South America in the early 16th Century."

The Santa Fe branch was opened in 1993, and the Internal Revenue Service has granted it tax-exempt status. In 1999, however, the federal government, pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), seized a shipment of the tea. The church filed suit arguing that the government's action violated several constitutional rights, including its First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The church also cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). (The RFRA, enacted in 1993, mandates that the government may not "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion, unless it can prove a "compelling" interest in doing so.)

In 2003 and 2004, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals barred the federal government from penalizing the sacramental use of hoasca.

According to documents submitted to the 10th Circuit, hoasca is believed to be a link to the divinities, a holy communion and a cure for ailments both physical and psychological. Moreover, church doctrine mandates that members can understand God only by drinking hoasca. The tea, which is prepared in Brazil and shipped to the church in New Mexico, is to be ingested at least twice monthly at ceremonies that last about four hours.

In its 2004 decision, the 10th Circuit on an 8-5 vote upheld a lower court injunction against the federal government.

"Certainly the interests of the government as well as the more general public are harmed if the government is enjoined from enforcing the [Controlled Substances Act] against the general importation and sale of street drugs...." wrote Judge Stephanie K. Seymour in a concurring opinion. "But this case is not about enjoining enforcement of the criminal laws against the use of street drugs. Rather, it is about importing and using small quantities of a controlled substance in a structured atmosphere of a bona fide religious ceremony. In short, this case is about RFRA and the free exercise of religion, a right protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution."

In another concurring opinion, Judge Michael W. McConnell wrote that the federal government had failed to show a compelling interest in prohibiting the church's use of hoasca.

"Congress's general conclusion that DMT is dangerous in the abstract," he said, "does not establish that the government has a compelling interest in prohibiting the consumption of hoasca under the conditions presented here."

Officials with the Bush administration, usually staunch advocates of "faith-based" life, have refused to give up their fight to interfere with the religious practices of the New Mexico church and appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the 10th Circuit's ruling.

In Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, the Supreme Court, as noted in today's New York Times, has taken on "an important new religion case." It is perhaps an opportunity for the high court to strengthen the protections of religious liberty.