A federal court has ruled that a Native American group’s religious freedom was not violated when the government seized marijuana that its members intended for sacramental use.
In April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that seizing the drug did not constitute a “substantial burden” on the group’s religious beliefs. Notably, however, the court did not weigh in on whether or not using marijuana counts as religious expression.
The case concerns one pound of cannabis that was seized by the federal government in 2009. It was in a FedEx package addressed to Michael Rex “Raging Bear” Mooney, founder of the 250-member Native American Church of Hawaii. Mooney fought the seizure in court, claiming he had a religious-freedom right to use the drug. His attorneys cited the 1993 federal law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The appeals court was not persuaded, writing that Mooney’s attorneys “admitted on multiple occasions that no religious ceremonies engaged in by Mooney…actually require the use of cannabis.”
This is not the first time people have attempted to claim a First-Amendment right to consume illegal narcotics. In the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision for Employment Division v. Smith, the high court said a state can deny unemployment benefits to Native American workers who were fired for using peyote – even though they claimed using the substance was part of their religious expression.
Motivated by that decision, various interests backed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that the federal government must not place undue burden on religious practice. Although that law was intended to protect minority religious beliefs, it has since been misinterpreted to allow for-profit business owners to make private healthcare decisions for their employees.
The case is Oklevueha Native American Church of Hawaii, Inc. v. Lynch.