Sep 15, 2011

A Brazilian church with 130 members in the United States brought an action against the federal government seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the government from enforcing the Controlled Substances Act as it pertains to the importation, possession, and distribution of a hallucinogenic herb known as "hoasca." The plaintiffs asserted that the criminalization of hoasca violates, among other things, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because church doctrine dictates that members must drink hoasca tea as part of their religious practice. The government claimed that it has a compelling interest in outlawing the use of hoasca because it is harmful to users and can be diverted to sale in the black market. The district court found that the proof on these points was in "equipoise" and that the government had thus failed to meet its burden, so it issued the preliminary injunction. A panel of the Tenth Circuit, and then the en banc court, affirmed that ruling. The government obtained a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court. In September 2005, Americans United joined various religious groups in an amicus brief submitted on behalf of the church, arguing that the government’s position on appeal — that the government should be permitted to satisfy RFRA’s requirements with the abstract claim that it has a compelling interest in the "uniform enforcement" of the laws and through general congressional findings rather than by presenting hard evidence — would largely destroy RFRA as a meaningful constraint on federal laws that otherwise would override religious rights and interests. On February 21, 2006, Chief Justice Roberts authored his first Opinion since being elevated to the Supreme Court. Writing for a unanimous Court, he affirmed the Tenth Circuit’s decision. The Court reasoned that RFRA requires a case-by-case analysis of the impact of the challenged law, rather than a categorical approach; that the Act itself authorizes the Attorney General to make exceptions; that the government has made such an exception for peyote use by Native Americans for the past thirty-five years; and that the government has not demonstrated that a similar exception for hoasca would prove harmful.

Federal Court