High Court Upholds Exception in Religious Drug Tea Case

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Tuesday to uphold a lower court ruling that a small religious sect in New Mexico should not be prohibited from using a hallucinogenic tea in its practices.

The decision was lauded by religious freedom advocates for providing a legal framework that supports religious liberties. The government had argued that it could enforce a controlled substances law by allowing federal drug agents to confiscate the "Hoacsa" tea of the Brazil-based church. It said a ban on the tea would prevent its abuse and possible non-religious use.

“The Supreme Court’s key message is this: The government has to give an awfully good reason for stopping people from exercising their faith,” said Gregory S. Baylor, director of Christian Legal Center’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom.

Gonzales v. Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, was the first religious freedom case under new Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote the opinion and agreed with the group’s assertion that enforcement of federal drug laws on the 130 member congregation would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFA).

Although the group is highly controversial for its unorthodox practices and beliefs, Christian bodies including the National Association of Evangelicals and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the New Mexico congregation.

The religious group’s name translates to the “Union of Plants Charitable Spiritual Center” and mixes Christianity with indigenous South American beliefs. It has a total of 8,000 members in Brazil.

The tea in question is brewed from Amazon plants and is used for a type of communion, a practice which the government acknowledges “is a sincere exercise of religion” wrote Roberts.

Regarding the safety of the drug in the leaf, the written opinion noted that a lower court concluded that evidence of health risks was “in equipoise” and the evidence that the leaf could be diverted for other uses was “virtually balanced.”

“RFRA requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law ‘to the person’—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened,” wrote Roberts.

“[T]he 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,” stated the opinion.

However the Chief Justice indicated that the RFRA works by requiring that exceptions to general rules be applied. He indicated that federal drug laws already make exceptions for Native American Indians to use peyote in religious rituals.

That exception “fatally undermines the Government’s broader contention that the Controlled Substances Act establishes a closed regulatory system that admits no exceptions under RFRA,” he wrote.

Alan Sears, General Counsel for Alliance Defense Fund said that this case and prior precedents could “pave the way for returning to the Constitution’s original intent” regarding other religious liberty cases, including freedom-of-conscience for medical professionals, and cases where parents want to take out their children from school functions that oppose their religion.

A spokesman for the Becket Religious Fund, which has argued on behalf of various religions and also filed an amicus brief in the case, said that the ruling was important because it “sharpened” the RFRA’s “teeth,” showing that the law still applied to the federal government “with force.”

Originally, the government confiscated a shipment of three drums that contained the Hoacsa tea, which contains a drug known as dimethyltryptamine (DMT) that causes hallucinations and is illegal under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act.

The U.S. Justice department says that DMT can lead to depression, intense anxiety, disorientation and psychosis and that the drug is a danger to children who belong to the religious group.

The 8-0 ruling did not include newly appointed Associate Justice Samuel Alito who was not yet on the court when the case was heard.