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Supreme Court Says "OK" To Ayahuasca

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday rejected government arguments against use of a hallucinogenic tea in religious services.

The 8-0 ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts stemmed from a New Mexico case involving O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal, a Spiritst Christian sect originating in the Amazon Rainforest. The court`s newest justice, Sam Alito, did not take part in the case.

The sect, which has about 130 members, brews a sacramental tea from plants unique to the Amazon, containing hallucinogens regulated by the Controlled Substances Act.

The government argued no exceptions can be made to the anti-drug law, even though it conceded the sect`s use of the tea was a sincere expression of religious practice.

'We do not doubt that there may be instances in which a need for uniformity precludes the recognition of exceptions to generally applicable laws under (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act),' Roberts wrote. 'But it would have been surprising to find that this was such a case, given the longstanding exemption from the Controlled Substances Act for religious use of peyote, and the fact that the very reason Congress enacted RFRA was to respond to a decision denying a claimed right to sacramental use of a controlled substance.'

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

from Bloomberg News
U.S. Supreme Court Says Church Can Use Hallucinogen
By Greg Stohr in Washington

Feb. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court, saying law enforcement goals in some cases must yield to religious rights, ruled that the Bush administration can't block a New Mexico church from using a hallucinogenic tea.

In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court said the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the church, a 130-member branch of a Brazilian denomination. The justices upheld a preliminary injunction barring federal prosecution of church leaders.

Roberts, ruling in his first religious-freedom case, rejected the Bush administration's contention that only a categorical ban on the substance would adequately prevent abuse and diversion to non-religious use.

``The government's argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions,'' Roberts wrote. He said Congress instead required ``striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.''

Roberts said federal drug laws already make an exception that lets Native American tribes use peyote in religious ceremonies.

The case put the Bush administration in the unusual position of opposing religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, both of which backed the New Mexico church. The government contended the tea, known as hoasca, is dangerous and illegal.

Bronfman Connection

The church, O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, argued that its members believe the ritualistic use of hoasca brings them closer to God. The church's U.S. branch is led by Jeffrey Bronfman, a second cousin of Warner Music Group Chairman Edgar Bronfman Jr.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act says the federal government can't restrict religious activities except to meet a compelling interest. The law applied to the states as well until a 1997 Supreme Court decision that said that aspect was unconstitutional.

RFRA, as the law is known, was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that said generally applicable laws in most cases need not make exceptions to accommodate church practices. That ruling limited the scope of the constitutional protection for religious freedom.

The high court today concluded the Justice Department hadn't met its burden under the 1993 law. The ruling upheld a decision by a Denver-based federal appeals court.

New Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. didn't take part in the 8-0 decision, which was argued Nov. 1, well before his Senate confirmation.

South American Religion

Today's case didn't directly concern the scope of the Constitution's free-exercise clause, although the test laid out by the 1993 law is similar to the standard used by the Supreme Court before its 1990 decision.

Hoasca contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a hallucinogenic substance restricted under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. The Justice Department says DMT can lead to depression, intense anxiety, disorientation and psychosis and that the drug is a particular danger to children who are church members.

UDV, as the church is known, mixes Christian theology and indigenous South American beliefs. Founded in 1961 by a rubber tapper, the religion has 8,000 members in Brazil. Its name translates to The Union of Plants Charitable Spiritual Center.

The dispute between UDV and the government began in 1999, when U.S. Customs inspectors intercepted a shipment from Brazil of three drums that contained the drug. Authorities later searched the Bronfmans' home and seized 30 gallons of hoasca.

The UDV then sued, seeking a court order barring the government from enforcing federal drug laws against the church or its leaders.

The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, 04-1084.


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