A unanimous US Supreme Court ruled Monday that the US branch of a Brazilian church may use a psychedelic tea containing a controlled substance as part of its religious rituals. The ruling, the first decision on religious freedom under the court of Chief Justice John Roberts, was a strong signal the court will move decisively to keep the government from interfering in a church's religious practices even when the government invokes the Controlled Substances Act.
The ruling came in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, whose branch in New Mexico sued the federal government after Customs inspectors seized a shipment of the Amazonian concoction and threatened to prosecute members under federal drug laws. The Union of the Vegetable, as the name translates in English, argued that its practices were protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it won both in US district court and in the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeal. The Bush administration Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court.
Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed by Congress in part to protect peyote use by members of the Native American Church, the government must show a "compelling government interest" in restricting religious freedom and use "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest. The federal government failed that test, wrote Justice Roberts.
"The government failed to demonstrate... a compelling interest in barring the UDV's sacramental use of hoasca," he found. Even though the government claimed a compelling interest in the uniform enforcement of the drug laws, Roberts added, its claim that no exceptions could possibly be made was too weak to trump the RFRA. Neither did the court find compelling the government's arguments that it was bound by international law to ban the substance, noting that the government presented as evidence only two State Department officials who said generally the US should obey international law.
"The Supreme Court's sad track record of carving out a 'drug exception to the Bill Of Rights' has narrowed freedoms for all Americans. Thank God the Court has at last decided that there are exceptions to that exception," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The government's attempt to deprive church members ayahuasca in the name of the war on drugs is like denying Catholics wine at communion to combat drunk driving," said Nadelmann in a statement issued Tuesday.