Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Supreme Court Upholds Church's Right To Use Hallucinogenic Tea

In a unanimous 8-0 decision today in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (full opinion), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration cannot block a New Mexico church from using a hallucinogenic tea for religious purposes. Bloomberg News reports:
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 today said the church, a 130-member branch of a Brazilian denomination, is protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The justices upheld a preliminary injunction barring federal prosecution of church leaders.

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.
Here are excerpts from the Court's Syllabus of its opinion:
The courts below did not err in determining that the Government failed to demonstrate, at the preliminary injunction stage, a compelling interest in barring the UDV's sacramental use of hoasca....
The Government's argument that, although [under RFRA] it would bear the burden of demonstrating a compelling interest at trial on the merits, the UDV should have borne the burden of disproving such interests at the preliminary injunction hearing is foreclosed by Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 542 U.S. 656, 666....
Also rejected is the Government's central submission that, because it has a compelling interest in the uniform application of the Controlled Substances Act, no exception to the DMT ban can be made to accommodate the UDV.... RFRA and its strict scrutiny test contemplate an inquiry more focused than the Government's categorical approach.... [T]he Government's mere invocation of the general characteristics of Schedule I substances cannot carry the day.... The peyote exception has been in place since the Controlled Substance's Act's outset, and there is no evidence that it has undercut the Government's ability to enforce the ban on peyote use by non-Indians.
The Government argues unpersuasively that it has a compelling interest in complying with the 1971 U.N. Convention [on Psychotropic Substances].... At this stage, it suffices that the Government did not submit any evidence addressing the international consequences of granting the UDV an exemption, but simply relied on ... the general (and undoubted) importance of honoring international obligations and maintaining the United States' leadership in the international war on drugs. Under RFRA, invocation of such general interests, standing alone, is not enough.