In a ruling Tuesday, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously held that members of the Native American Church can legally use peyote as part of their religion regardless of their race. Federal legislation dating from 1970 exempts Native American religious use of the hallucinogenic cactus from the Controlled Substances Act, which otherwise prohibits it. A Utah state law prohibiting peyote use incorporates the federal exemption. In its ruling Tuesday, the state's highest court held that the state law did not limit the religious exemption to members of federally registered tribes.
The ruling came in the case of James "Flaming Eagle" Mooney, founder of the Oklevueha Earthwalks Native American Church, and his wife, Linda Mooney. The pair faced life in prison after being charged with more than a dozen felony drug distribution counts when Utah police seized more than 12,000 peyote buttons in an October 2000 raid. The criminal case never went to trial because the Mooneys immediately moved to have it thrown out, arguing that their peyote distribution and use occurred within the context of protected Native American Church ritual. The district court judge rejected that motion, the Mooneys appealed, and now the state Supreme Court has ruled.
Mooney claims to be one-quarter Seminole, but that claim has never been documented. He is not a member of a federally registered tribe, but he is a member of the Native American Church.
During oral arguments in the case last November, church attorney Kathryn Collard told the court peyote use was central to Indian spirituality. "The worship of peyote as a deity and sacrament is fundamental to the Native American religion," Collard said.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Kris Leonard countered with the "Pandora's box" argument, raising the specter of an epidemic of peyote abuse if the exemption were applied to non-Indians. "I have a job to do, and from the state's point of view, you can't open that box even a little," she said.
But the Utah Supreme Court found that state law was clear. "Because the text of the exemption is devoid of any reference to tribal status, we find no support for an interpretation limiting the exemption to tribal members," wrote Justice Jill N. Parrish for the court. "Therefore, so long as their church is part of 'the Native American Church,' the Mooneys may not be prosecuted for using peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies."
"In every era people have had to fight for the right to practice their religious beliefs freely, particularly if their beliefs were not that of the predominant culture," said Collard after the decision was rendered. "The great thing is that we can do that. We have a Constitution that protects our rights to practice our religion freely."
But she warned the ruling was not a green light for every thrill-seeking white peyote eater to claim a religious exemption. "It isn't like if you and I wanted to go do some peyote we could form a church and go do some," she said. "I don't think just calling yourself a Native American Church would do it. There is a body of teaching and religious beliefs people recognize as being central to the Native American Church."
The Utah Supreme Court decision is available at http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/mooney062204.htm online.